Space Station's Cubesat Launcher has Mind of its Own
In the grasp of the Japanese robotic arm, NanoRack’s CubeSat deployer releases a pair of miniature satellites last month.
The world's newest satellite launch site is off to a busy start, with 16 spacecraft put into orbit within a week -- and no rocket required. What’s the trick? Well, the launch site itself is in space. The satellites -- tiny Earth-imagers owned by Silicon Valley startup Planet Labs -- were deployed into orbit over the past week from aboard the International Space Station.NEWS: Saving the Planet One Tiny Satellite at a Time
Read on to see stunning orbital photographs of one of the launches.
Planet Labs is the first customer to make use of a new small satellite launcher owned by NanoRacks, another commercial space firm. NanoRacks' so-called "cubesat deployer" (photographed here in action) was flown to the station last month and installed in Japan’s Kibo laboratory. The module includes an exposed back porch, accessible via a small airlock and robotic arm. Japan also operates its own cubesat launcher on Kibo.ANALYSIS: ISS Astronauts Fire-Up Awesome 'Cubesat Cannon'
Planet Labs’ satellites are part of a planned 28-member network of tiny spacecraft equipped with cameras to continuously image Earth.
Like the station, the Planet Labs constellation, known as Flock 1, will fly in orbits inclined about 52 degrees above and below the equator. They will be lower than the station’s 250-mile altitude to prevent any potential collisions.
Last night, two more of Planet Lab’s shoebox-sized Earth imaging satellites launched themselves from aboard the International Space Station, the latest in a series of technical mysteries involving a commercially owned CubeSat deployer located outside Japan’s Kibo laboratory module.
Station commander Steve Swanson was storing some blood samples in one of the station’s freezers Friday morning when he noticed that the doors on NanoRack’s cubesat deployer were open, said NASA mission commentator Pat Ryan.
Flight controllers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston determined that two CubeSats had been inadvertently released.
“No crew members or ground controllers saw the deployment. They reviewed all the camera footage and there was no views of it there either,” Ryan said.
The satellites, owned by San Francisco-based Planet Labs, are part of a planned 100-member network designed to collect images of the entire Earth every 24 hours.
So far, 12 of 32 CubeSats delivered to the space station aboard a Cygnus cargo ship in July have been deployed, including four launched inadvertently, said NanoRacks spokeswoman Abby Dickes.
In addition to the two Planet Labs satellites launched Thursday night, two more of the company’s satellites were released accidentally Aug. 23, a NASA status report shows.
The latest inadvertent deployment followed unsuccessful attempts Wednesday night to return NanoRack’s CubeSat dispenser to service. Troubleshooting efforts included jiggling the small robotic arm holding the dispense in an attempt to get its doors to open, Ryan added.
Flight control teams are assessing whether to bring the deployer back inside the station or to try to release the remaining CubeSats still awaiting launch.