Launch! ISS Astronauts Deploy Awesome 'Cubesat Cannon'

As if the International Space Station couldn't get any cooler, the Japanese segment of the orbiting outpost has launched a barrage of small satellites -- known as "cubesats" -- from their very own Cubesat Cannon! Continue reading →

As if the International Space Station couldn't get any cooler, the Japanese segment of the orbiting outpost has launched a barrage of small satellites - known as "cubesats" - from their very own Cubesat Cannon!

Of course, the real name of the cubesat deployment system isn't quite as dramatic, but the JEM Small Satellite Orbital Deployer (J-SSOD) adds a certain sci-fi flair to space station science.

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The Japanese space station module, Kibo, is equipped with its own robotic arm and exterior platform that can be used to carry out experiments not only in microgravity, but also in the vacuum of space. It is with the robotic arm, with J-SSOD attached, that, on Nov. 19, three cubesats (one joint Japan/Vietnam Earth-imaging experiment and two NASA-sponsored missions) were launched with the help of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Koichi Wakata and NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins.

Via Kibo's airlock, the exposed JEM platform can be accessed, and the pre-prepared, spring-loaded J-SSOD could be attached and sent to the space station's exterior where the robotic arm attached itself to become a cubesat launcher. The system was previously tested in October 2012, launching five cubesats.

Wakata and Hopkins arrived at the station as members of the Expedition 38 crew on Nov. 7.

Per the JAXA project website:

"JEM Small Satellite Orbital Deployer (J-SSOD) is a mechanism for deploying small satellites designed in accordance with CubeSat design specification (10cm×10cm×10cm) that transfers the satellites from the Japanese Experiment Module Kibo's airlock to space environment and releases them on orbit."

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In a Twitter update by Wakata on Nov. 19, a photo of the three satellites was posted (below) along with a message saying that he had worked with the Tsukuba Space Center team to launch them (original Japanese language tweet).

Then, on Nov. 20, Wakata posted a photograph of the J-SSOD in action, along with the message:

2nd day of small satellite deploy. KIBOTT team at Tsukuba successfully sent commands to deploy a NASA AMES satellite.

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The Nov. 20 deployment (pictured top) was of the TechEdSat-3 nanosatellite developed by NASA's Ames Research Center "to validate an aero-braking mechanism called Exo Brake," according to Aviation Week. This satellite is a 30×10×10 centimeter mission, hence its rectangular appearance.

Cubesats provide a lightweight and low cost means of getting small experimental payloads into orbit. And as these photos show, their deployment from the International Space Station make for some great photo opportunities.

Image credit: JAXA/Koichi Wakata

This was the view from the International Space Station as the European Automated Transfer Vehicle "Albert Einstein" (ATV-4) undocked and began five days of orbital maneuvers before reentry on Nov. 2. The unmanned cargo vehicle had been docked to the space station for five months after delivering seven tons of food, supplies and equipment to the orbiting outpost in June. Filled with trash and unwanted equipment, the ATV became a high-tech waste disposal system on Oct. 28 as it began its reentry procedure. These are some of the spectacular views as seen by space station astronauts as the ATV slammed into the Earth's atmosphere.

The descending ATV-4 slowly approaching its reentry demise against the backdrop of Earth -- two commercial jetliners and their contrails can be seen.

From the space station astronauts perspective, the ATV can be seen interacting with the Earth's atmosphere some 62 miles (100 kilometers) directly below. Pieces of the ATV are ripped away by extreme stresses and begin to burn up.

As reentry continues, the ATV disintegrates.

The main mass of the ATV burns brightly during reentry over an unpopulated region of the Pacific Ocean on Nov. 2.

Resembling a meteor, the main mass of the ATV succumbs to the extreme heating and dynamic stresses as it tumbles through the atmosphere.

The remaining mass of the ATV breaks up, scattering pieces as the spacecraft lights up the skies over the Pacfic Ocean.

Pieces of the ATV resemble a shower of meteors as they complete their fiery reentry.