A spacecraft is the sum of many components—just to name a few—propulsion systems, radiation protection, communication systems—each mission has different technical requirements and challenges. However, before a technological innovation reaches deep space, its effectiveness can be tested in suborbital and orbital flights closer to the earth. These flight tests expose a technology to the challenging characteristics of space flight that cannot be simulated by ground tests, such as strong acceleration and the absence of gravity. While providing key advantages, this multi-iteration journey through flight data collection and technical fine-tuning can sometimes take years and often prolong the results of the research team.
Enter payload accelerator for CubeSat Endeavors or PACE plan. PACE aims to actively shorten the time frame of traditional technology testing. This work links two NASA projects Flight Opportunities and Small Spacecraft Technology to effectively connect payloads to suborbital and orbital flight tests, thereby increasing the possibility that a technology will be selected for exploration missions. PACE also collaborates with other NASA programs (such as the CubeSat Launch Initiative) to pave the most effective way to pass NASA’s technical testing process.
“PACE’s goal is to fly as many technologies as possible, especially new and potentially risky innovations, and really go further,” said Anh Nguyen, PACE project manager at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California .
By addressing the limitations of current testing procedures, such as strict payload requirements and lengthy review processes, PACE has accelerated the timetable, made early technology available and prepared for flight testing so that they can quickly obtain the data needed for improvement . In Nguyen’s words, “All they need is a chance to fly.” The first technology that
PACE promotes in flight testing is VR3x, which was developed by researchers at Stanford University and Carnegie Mellon University to help CubeSats coordinate advanced communication and navigation capabilities between groups. (or groups). On March 12, 2021, Flight Opportunities supported a high-altitude balloon flight from Raven Aerostar in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, allowing researchers to evaluate the effectiveness of VR3x by forming a mesh network between various spacecraft and stations. terrestrial. Advanced group communication.
This suborbital data will be added to the orbital flight test using three VR3x CubeSats. The CubeSat was launched on January 24, 2021. The space demonstration enables researchers to collect bidirectional time offset distance measurements between low Earth orbit satellites, an accurate method of determining the position and distance of spacecraft to help validate new relative navigation and orbit determination algorithms. .
Anh Nguyen, VR3x mission project manager, left, with Stanford University’s Max Holliday,
Anh Nguyen, VR3x mission project manager, left, and Stanford University’s Max Holliday, center, joining NASA in a VR3x ground unit The laboratory at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California.
Credit: NASA / Dominic Hart
One of the upcoming deck technologies for suborbital flight tests through PACE is the Advanced Development Project or ADP Avionics System. As a key mechanism for conducting PACE’s accelerated testing program, ADP is a highly modular, adaptable and reasonably priced avionics architecture built with off-the-shelf components. Its goal is to provide the mechanical and communication systems needed for various technologies, and can seamlessly transition from suborbital vehicles to orbital vehicles, minimize integration complexity, and allow payload designers to focus their time and budget on developing its main innovation. The flexible design of the
ADP makes it a test bed in itself: the technology is ready to fly using standard and experimental radio, navigation and attitude determination systems. Testing various subsystems will help ADP easily adapt to payload requirements, thereby increasing the profitability of payloads that are less stringent on spacecraft. The flexibility of ADP also allows it to adapt to challenging requirements such as high data throughput or narrow targets for the spacecraft body, allowing the spacecraft’s payload to be accurately directed to external objects on the ground or in space.
By providing flight verification for new avionics components, PACE enables payload developers across the aerospace industry, including the commercial aerospace industry and academia, to design and build payloads in an affordable manner. The ADP platform is scheduled for orbital launch and high-altitude balloon flight with Raven Aerostar in 2021, which will enable Nguyen and his team to evaluate flight software, communication systems, and mechanical performance in suborbital and orbital environments. The
Intrepid is a low-cost, lightweight gamma and neutron particle detector that will serve as the first integrated payload for ADP’s suborbital flight later this year. Dayne Kemp, Principal Investigator for the ADP platform at Ames and Intrepid, understands directly how difficult it is for researchers to get the fast and affordable flights needed to validate their innovations. “Without PACE, collecting the suborbital and orbital flight data necessary to mature the Intrepid would be time consuming and potentially more expensive,” Kemp said.
Four VR3x ground units and one balloon flight unit are ready for flight testing in the laboratory. NASA Ames
Four VR3x ground units and a balloon flight unit are ready for flight testing at the NASA Ames Research Center laboratory in Silicon Valley, California.
Credit: NASA / Dominic Hart
Now, both ADP and Intrepid will accept cost-effective flight verification, rapid response, and advance their space exploration mission journey.
PACE seeks to engage with payload developers as soon as possible, not only to provide technicians with the subsystems necessary for flight, but also to provide the institutional knowledge necessary to increase the chances of success and optimize data collection. Although this combination of orbital and suborbital flight tests is valuable regardless of the test sequence, many of the project payloads will pass the flight opportunity for suborbital flight first and then supported by small spacecraft for six months after entering. in orbit. flight technical program.

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