Tag Archive for: Nasa

GeoOptics Inc. won a NASA contract worth a maximum of $7 million over five years to provide researchers with data acquired by the company’s small satellite constellation.

The contract, announced Nov. 14, was GeoOptics’ first as part of NASA’s Commercial SmallSat Data Acquisition program. Pasadena, Calif.-based GeoOptics has supplied radio occultation data to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for weather forecasts since 2020.

GeoOptics CEO Alex Saltman welcomed the NASA award.

“We’ve always had a very strong sense of responsibility to the science community,” Saltman told SpaceNews. “All of our technologies come out of that community. Many of our employees come out of that community. And we want to provide a really great science product for researchers.”

The NASA contract directs GeoOptics to deliver a comprehensive catalog of its data products “indicating at a minimum: the data sets, associated metadata and ancillary information; data cadence; data latency; area coverage; and data usage policy,” according to the news release.

NASA acquires commercial data under licenses that allow the agency to share datasets with U.S. government agencies and partners.

GeoOptics will process radio occultation data for NASA to a higher degree of accuracy than data the company provides to NOAA for weather forecasting.

“Often when you process radio occultation data in real time, you’re using, for example, real-time orbit for GPS satellites, which are not quite as accurate as the eventual orbits that folks can determine days or weeks later,” Saltman said. “That’s one of the ways that it’s more precise.”

GeoOptics has launched 10 satellites. The company’s next launch is scheduled for late 2023. GeoOptics does not comment on how many satellites remain operational.

NASA established the Commercial SmallSat Data Acquisition pilot program in 2017 to determine whether commercial observations could augment or complement government datasets. NASA began buying datasets in 2018 after principal investigators showed the data and imagery bolstered Earth-observation research and applications.

Through the program, NASA has acquired data from Airbus U.S., BlackSky Technology, Maxar Technologies, Planet, Spire Global and Teledyne Brown Engineering.

NASA also has purchased high-resolution Digital Elevation Models produced by the EarthDEM Project, a collaboration that includes the University of Minnesota’s Polar Geospatial Center, Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center, and the University of Illinois National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and based on Maxar satellite data.

NovaWurks is ready to discuss contracts, customers and expansion plans, after a series of spaceflight demonstrations followed by years of secrecy.

They made a splash nearly a decade ago when the Southern California startup proposed constructing spacecraft with identical box-shaped modules weighing about six kilograms. The modules, now trademarked as Slego, provide the functions of conventional components like pointing, information processing and data storage.

Designed to operate in geostationary orbit for 15 years, Slegos offer “tons of capability,” Talbot Jaeger, NovaWurks founder and chief technologist, told SpaceNews at the Small Satellite Conference.

Rather than custom-designing spacecraft to accommodate payloads, NovaWurks arranges Slego building blocks in different configurations.

“We’re not designing, we’re configuring,” Jaeger said. “Configuration doesn’t spend money on all that nonrecurring engineering.”

NovaWurks performed its first in-orbit demonstration in 2017 on the International Space Station. An astronaut assembled a small satellite by combining six modules, then called HISats, with deployable solar arrays and an electro-optical imager in the NASA-sponsored Satlet Initial Proofs and Lessons mission.

In 2018, NovaWurks’ Payload Orbital Delivery Satellite, PODSat-1, a mission funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, reached geostationary transfer orbit. PODSat-1’s four Slegos with a radio and antenna traveled to geostationary transfer orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as a hosted payload that was later deployed from a Hispasat communications satellite.

Novawurks again demonstrated its modular approach through the 2018 eXperiment for Cellular Integration Technology, or eXCITe, mission. Another Falcon 9 sent eXCITe, one of 64 payloads on the rideshare flight, to low Earth orbit.

Taken together, the demonstrations provided NovaWurks with the information engineers needed to refine their approach. For more than two years, company executives revealed little about the company’s spaceflight demonstrations or future plans. At the time, NovaWurks engineers were busy upgrading Slegos.

“With all that testing, fixing, correcting, adjusting, we have a product now that is ready and we’ve got people interested,” Jaeger said. “It was hard to turn science fiction into fact. It took a lot of money and time, but it was worth it because we can change space.”

Early in-orbit demonstrations have led to contracts. To keep up, NovaWurks plans to more than double its staff by the end of the year from 20 to 50 people.

For example, NovaWurks is working with Saturn Satellite Networks to jointly develop Saturn’s NationSat, a small geostationary communications satellite.

They are also working with NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency and the U.S. Space Force Space Systems Command on a mission to measure solar energy reflected and absorbed by Earth. Data will be gathered with a small telescope attached to their Slegos. The project, called Athena, is a test of NovaWurks’ quick-turnaround capability.

During the pandemic, NovaWurks provided the Space Force with another demonstration of its quick-turnaround strategy. The Space Force gave NovaWurks three different spacecraft payloads with different thermal and field-of-view requirements. The idea was that once the Space Force selected one of the three payloads to fly, NovaWurks would have only 60 days to configure the spacecraft. 

“When we said that was easy, they made 30 days a stretch goal,” said Bill Crandall, NovaWurks business development vice president.

The Space Force then selected one of the three payloads. It took NovaWurks five days to configure and turn on the spacecraft to accommodate it. The response from the Space Force was, “Okay, take that one apart and build another one,” Crandall said.

Again, it took less than five days. NovaWurks captured the process on video to share with the Space Force “because they didn’t believe it,” Jaeger said.

LizzieSat-1 could be launched without thrusters by Sidus Space if it can’t get safety clearances in time to deploy its first satellite from the International Space Station early next year.

It is unclear if Sidus can get all NASA approvals to add operational-life-extending thrusters to LizzieSat-1 for a cargo trip to the ISS in February, Sidus chief mission operations officer John Curry said Aug. 8 during the Small Satellite Conference here.

“It’s possible we may end up deciding not to fly the thruster,” Curry said Aug. 8 during the Small Satellite Conference here, so that it can “just get through the safety process and go ahead and fly.

“It’s not that we can’t get past that, but it takes a long time.”

LizzieSat-1 was previously slated to launch on a mission to the ISS in October before NASA re-manifested it to February.

While Sidus still plans to launch LizzieSat-1 from the ISS, the company’s flexible deployment capabilities also enable it to leverage rideshare opportunities.

LizzieSat-1 is the first of 100 satellites Sidus is planning for a constellation that would initially provide in-orbit testing services.

The 100-kilogram spacecraft had been set to use a deployer on the ISS that Sidus manages as part of its existing government contractor business.

If deployed from the ISS without thrusters, Curry said LizzieSat-1 would only provide services for around 130-200 days before losing operational altitude. 

While that would still be enough time to demonstrate core technology, he said its satellites with thrusters could last 18 months to three years, depending on mission requirements. 

LizzieSat-1’s customers include NASA and Mission Helios, a financial services startup that aims to test technology for NFTs.

Curry said that these and other future customers don’t care about the length of time they spend on orbit, and a LizzieSat without thrusters has more room for payloads.

However, a LizzieSat with thrusters is the standard design for the company’s constellation and would enable more control over the satellite’s de-orbit trajectory.

While a rideshare launch would likely come after the Feb. 19 ISS Cargo mission Sidus is currently targeting, getting to LEO on a rocket would likely deliver the satellite to orbit faster than via the ISS, where Curry said it would take astronauts 30-60 days to deploy the spacecraft once it arrived on the station.

For an ISS launch, he said NASA also requires delivery of a “fully outfitted” satellite 10 and a half weeks before launch, compared to four weeks for a rideshare mission.

That means using rideshare providers for future satellites would give customers more time to provide the payloads they want to test on LizzieSat satellites. It would also guard against the possibility of supply chain delays.

Sidus is negotiating with “a number of different providers” for launching other LizzieSats later in 2023.

NASA is preparing to launch Starling, its first satellite swarm. Instead of communicating directly with the four Starling cubesats, mission operators will send instructions to the swarm as a single entity.

If successful, “swarms have a potential to revolutionize the way we do science,” said Howard Cannon, NASA Starling project manager at the NASA Ames Research Center. “Instead of having one monolithic spacecraft that you are dependent on operating properly, you can have multiple smaller spacecraft that are less expensive.”

Swarms also offer NASA the opportunity to gather scientific data from multiple locations with far less handholding than traditional constellations.

HelioSwarm, for example, is a $250 million mission NASA plans to launch in 2028 to study solar wind turbulence with nine satellites. HelioSwarm mission managers will communicate with the hub satellite built by Northrop Grumman, which will coordinate operations of eight smaller spacecraft built by Blue Canyon Technologies.

“HelioSwarm’s nine spacecraft form an observatory to provide the first ever simultaneous, multiscale observations in the solar wind needed to understand space plasma turbulence,” Harlan Spence, HelioSwarm principal investigator and director of the University of New Hampshire Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space, said by email. “Turbulence is inherently a multiscale process and those multiple scale sizes must be sampled simultaneously to understand how energy is conveyed.”

Despite the promise, swarms in general and the Starling mission specifically present challenges. It remains to be seen whether communications, navigation and autonomy technologies are advanced enough for swarm operations. NASA intends to find out during the six-month Starling mission with a series of experiments.


First up is the Mobile Ad-hoc Network experiment. Starling mission managers will test whether the six-unit cubesats can establish and maintain a dynamic communications network.

“If one of the satellites goes out of range or fails, how do you make sure that network still meets a certain level of reliability and throughput,” asked Shey Sabripour, founder and CEO of CesiumAstro, which is providing Starling’s software-defined radios with S-band intersatellite links. “That is what we are trying to solve here with NASA.”

Next up is the Starlink Formation-Flying Optical Experiment, known as StarFOX. Starling satellites will rely on star trackers to move into various formations and prevent collisions.

“For the first time, we will give a swarm the capability to autonomously navigate in space without GPS, using only cameras embedded in these four cubesats pointing at one another,” said Simone D’Amico, who leads Stanford University’s Space Rendezvous Laboratory. “By exchanging and processing these cameras measurements, we are able to determine the orbits of all the spacecraft.”

The third demo, Reconfiguration and Orbit Maintenance Experiments Onboard (ROMEO), will test whether Starling satellites can maneuver autonomously to achieve their objectives.

“Coordinated autonomous maneuvering will be required for future constellations and swarms where communications delays and bandwidth limitations make ground-based control impractical,” said Austin Probe, chief technology officer for Emergent Space Technologies. “ROMEO is integrating our Autopilot and Navigator flight software products to demonstrate autonomous station keeping and reconfiguration of the Starling swarm.”

While the Starling satellites conduct autonomous operations in orbit, L3Harris Technologies will be running a variation of its flight dynamics planning software on the ground.

“The ground planning software is a reference to see how well the autonomous satellites are performing in this kind of test scenario,” said Praveen Kurian, L3Harris general manager for space superiority.

The final Starling experiment, Distributed Spacecraft Autonomy, relies on artificial intelligence to make plans based on ionospheric observations. With GPS receivers, Starling satellites will monitor ionospheric density and move around to further explore regions of particularly high or low density. Starling satellites “will automatically adjust their measurement techniques in order to take advantage of their relative positions,” Cannon said.


The Starling mission is scheduled to launch later this year from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, on a Firefly Aerospace Alpha rocket. The launch, alongside seven other cubesat missions, is a NASA Venture Class Launch Services demonstration.

First, though, Firefly plans to complete Flight 2, the company’s second orbital test launch. Firefly attempted in September to send its first Alpha to orbit, but fell short due to the failure of one of Alpha’s four engines.

Another orbital test flight is set for no earlier than mid-July, pending receipt of an FAA license. After that, the company “will go as quickly as possible” toward the NASA launch, said Kim Jennett, Firefly marketing director.

For Firefly, Starling is “very significant in developing a long-term partnership with NASA,” said Tom Markusic, Firefly co-founder and chief technical advisor. “We feel very honored to be part of that program.”

When the satellites are in orbit, Blue Canyon Technologies, the Raytheon Technologies subsidiary that also manufactured the Starling satellites, will provide mission operations support.

“The mission gives BCT the opportunity to demonstrate the flexibility of our mission operation system, from ground scheduling to retrieval and uploading mission plans to timely mission data delivery, while operating a constellation of spacecraft,” said Stephanee Borck, BCT Starling program manager.