Blue Canyon aims to show small-satellite performance at low altitudes

Blue Canyon focuses on turnkey small satellite systems for surveillance and other purposes, comprising microsatellites, nanosatellites, and EELV (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle) Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA) satellite payloads, as well as custom ground software.

A shoebox-size cubesat planned to function in very low orbit for a lengthy period was one of the 59 small-satellite projects SpaceX deployed on the Transporter 5 rideshare on May 25. Blue Canyon Technologies created the AMS “agile microsat” for the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, with financing from the United States Air Force. The purpose is to test small spacecraft’s ability to move and perform duties in extremely low orbits — between 200 – 300 kilometers above the Earth — where satellites must contend with atmospheric drag.

According to Brad Tously, Blue Canyon president and vice president of the parent firm Raytheon Intelligence and Space, the AMS, which has been in orbit for two years, will commence flying operations in mid-June. “What we want to achieve is prove that autonomous flight control software can perform in very low Earth orbit,” Tously told SpaceNews.

According to him, AMS will be the inaugural Blue Canyon hardware to operate in VLEO for a mission that could last many months. Blue Canyon’s mission operations facility in Lafayette, Colorado, will be in charge of the AMS spacecraft.

The AMS is equipped with an MIT Lincoln Laboratory-developed laser beacon plus remote sensing payloads. Blue Canyon employed a 6U-XL bus featuring symmetric double-deployed solar panels and an Enpulsion NANO AR3 electric propulsion thruster to try to reach the lowest feasible altitude.

“Your drag is increased when you fly in very low earth orbit.  So you can easily deorbit if you don’t handle your propulsion and flight software properly,” Tously explained. “That’s the purpose, to demonstrate that we can operate for extended periods and change altitude.” National security agencies are becoming more interested in VLEO space applications, according to Tously.

The Naval Research Laboratory chose Blue Canyon to support a joint US Navy-UK Ministry of Defense demonstration project in very low orbit in 2019. The mission, known as CIRCE (Coordinated Ionospheric Reconstruction CubeSat Experiment), has been in the works for more than two years and is set to launch in late 2022, according to Tously. Two 6U cubesats are going to fly in tandem to collect data on the ionosphere as well as the radiation environment from a variety of angles.

The ionosphere extends from the Earth’s upper atmosphere to the furthest reaches of space. Blue Canyon is expecting to be chosen for a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program which will launch many satellites to analyze high-frequency radio transmissions in the upper atmosphere, according to Tously.

Ouija is a DARPA project that is now soliciting industry offers. Radio wave propagation will be monitored by sensors aboard low-orbiting satellites. The research of radio waves inside this lower layer of space, according to the agency, will contribute to improving the performance of radio-based military weapon systems.

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