Blue Canyon wants to demonstrate the performance of small satellites at very low altitudes

Blue Canyon President Brad Toulous said national security agencies are becoming increasingly interested in space missions in very low Earth orbit

WASHINGTON – Among the 59 small satellite missions launched by SpaceX on March 25, carrier 5 Rideshare was a shoebox-sized cubesat designed to operate in very low orbits for long periods of time.

Known as AMS, the “agile microsat” was developed by Blue Canyon Technologies for MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory with support from the US Air Force. The aim is to test the ability of small spacecraft to maneuver in very low orbits – generally between 200 and 300 kilometers above the Earth – and perform tasks where satellites have to fight against air resistance.

The AMS, which is now in orbit after two years of development, will begin flight operations in mid-June, said Brad Toulous, Sresident of Blue Canyon and vice president of parent company Raytheon Intelligence and Space.

“We’re interested in validating that you can operate in very low Earth orbit with autonomous flight control software,” Toulous said SpaceNews.

He said AMS would be the first Blue Canyon hardware to fly in VLEO for an extended duration mission that could last several months. The AMS spacecraft will be operated from Blue Canyon’s Mission Operations Center in Lafayette, Colorado.

The AMS carries a laser signal and remote sensing payloads developed by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. Blue Canyon used a 6U XL bus in a configuration with symmetrical, dual-deployed solar panels and an Enpulsion NANO AR3 electric propulsion thruster that will try to maneuver to the lowest possible height.

“When you operate in very low Earth orbit, your drag increases. So if you don’t properly control the engine and your flight software, you can quickly deorbit,” Toulous said. “So that’s the point, to show that we can work with perseverance and go up and down at height.”

Military interest in low orbit demos

Toulous said there is growing interest from national security agencies in exploring VLEO space applications.

Blue Canyon in 2019 was selected by the Naval Research Laboratory to support a combined US Navy and UK Ministry of Defense demonstration mission in very low orbit.

The mission, dubbed CIRCE — short for Coordinated Ionospheric Reconstruction CubeSat Experiment — has been in development for more than two years and is scheduled to launch in late 2022, Toulous said. Two 6U CubeSats will fly in tandem formation to measure the ionosphere and radiative environment from multiple vantage points.

The ionosphere extends from the upper edges of the Earth’s atmosphere to the lower regions of space.

Toulous said Blue Canyon hopes to be selected for a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project that will launch multiple satellites to study high-frequency radio signals in the upper layers of the atmosphere.

DARPA is now seeking industry bids for the project called Ouija. It will use sensors on low-orbiting satellites to monitor the propagation of radio waves. The agency said studying radio waves in this lower layer of space will help improve the performance of military weapon systems that rely on radio signals.

These VLEO missions are important in many areas of scientific research, Toulous said. “If you want to characterize the ionosphere, you have to come down to lower than normal LEO orbits, and most people wouldn’t operate there for long periods of time,” he said. “Drag will increase and you will eventually deorbit within a few months.”

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