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(15 December 2020 – ESA) Thanks to a new ESA-developed receiver, the recently-launched Sentinel-6 is making use of Europe’s Galileo as well as the US GPS system, a fact set to sharpen the accuracy of its sea level rise measurements.

Copernicus Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich, launched on 21 November, is the world’s next radar altimetry reference mission, set to extend the legacy of sea-surface height measurements until at least 2030.

Developed by ESA with strong NASA support as part of Europe’s Copernics programme, the satellite is now being commissioned for operation by Eumetsat, Europe’s weather and climate satellite organisation.

Sentinel-6 is also the first Sentinel satellite equipped with a dual-system satnav receiver, which can make use of both GPS and Galileo signals, to perform mission-critical Precise Orbit Determination (POD).

Antenna and receiver (courtesy: RUAG Space)

The ESA-developed receiver’s first results became available on 26-27 November and underwent initial analysis by the Navigation Support Office based at ESA’s ESOC control centre in Germany, immediately revealing a very good data quality.

The receiver uses GPS and Galileo signals either separately or in combination. With Europe’s satnav system the world’s most precise, the Galileo POD measurements in particular were excellent, outperforming the GPS measurements by a factor of two in terms of accuracy.

Werner Enderle, Head of the Navigation Support Office comments: “While validation activities are still ongoing, the initial results of our Sentinel-6 precise orbit determination based exclusively on Galileo data are very exciting.”

Craig Donlon, Sentinel-6’s ESA Mission Scientist, explains that being able to more precisely fix the satellite’s position in space is crucial to mission success: “Sentinel-6 is a radar altimeter, measuring sea-surface height by sending down radar pulses to be bounced back to space, deriving the distance to the ocean surface to a few centimetres.

“But to know how far the signals have travelled we need to know the satellite’s orbital height to a high level of certainty. Such a high-performance satnav receiver that includes high-quality Galileo signals is likely to give us this information very precisely. Combined with the very low onboard noise of the altimeter instrument and its onboard processing facility, these are promising signs for the working mission to come.”

First flight of novel satnav receiver

Sentinel-6 carries a pair of shoebox-sized Precise Orbit Determination Receiver (PODRIX) units, manufactured by RUAG Space in Austria.

Flying in space for the first time, the multi-constellation PODRIX was designed through an ESA General Support Technology Programme project, led by ESA navigation engineer Pietro Giordano: “We were driven by requirements from ESA’s Earth Observation programme: many future Sentinels will be employing these receivers as a common procurement. That put the onus on us to design and qualify a good product. The receivers are also designed for use all the way up to geostationary orbit.

“We’re not surprised to hear about the quality of its output, but also happy, because you can never be 100% sure something works until it is flying.

“This project has turned out to be an excellent example of synergy between ESA domains, because we in the Directorate of Technology, Engineering and Quality worked closely with our Earth Observation counterparts, while also getting advice from the Directorate of Navigation, the ultimate source of knowledge on Galileo signals.”

galileo 2

AGGA-4 (courtesy: Astri Polska)

New generation of satnav circuits

The receiver contains one essential ingredient in turn: the fourth generation Advanced GPS/GLONASS Application Specific Integrated Circuit, AGGA-4 for short, funded by the Earth Observation Directorate and built by Airbus with the support of ESA’s Microelectronics section.

“Earlier versions of the AGGA relied solely on GPS and Russia’s Glonass, but with this generation we set out to make use of the other satnav constellations now available, including Europe’s Galileo,” says microelectronics specialist Roland Weigand, AGGA-4’s design support engineer. “The more signals in space you can process then the better your accuracy becomes.

“It basically works like any other GNSS receiver chip, except we have to make more effort in space, to overcome radiation, take account of signal dynamics and make use of distant signals that have been weakened by passage through Earth’s atmosphere.

“In fact, precise positioning was not the main design driver – the starting point was actually radio-occultation, where scientific and weather information is derived from GNSS signals’ passage through the atmosphere – but based on the multiple AGGA-4s already in space, they also function well for positioning. It’s motivating to know, after a long, development effort, that our customers are happy.”

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Exolaunch delivers 30 small satellites into orbit on SpaceX’s first dedicated Rideshare launch

Exolaunch delivers 30 small satellites into orbit on SpaceXs first

(24 January 2021 – Exolaunch) Exolaunch has announced a successful launch of 30 commercial, space agency, and university satellites for its customers from Europe and the U.S. on the first dedicated rideshare mission of SpaceX’s SmallSat Rideshare Program.

The mission, named “Zeitgeist,” lifted off on January 24 at 15:00 UTC on Falcon 9 “Transporter-1,” completing one of the largest and most diverse rideshare missions for Exolaunch.

Falcon 9 liftoff (courtesy: Exolaunch)

Zeitgeist kicked-off the first of several rideshares Exolaunch will manifest on Falcon 9 as part of a multi-launch agreement with SpaceX. On this mission, Exolaunch provided deployment, mission management and integration services to the German Aerospace Center (DLR), Dresden Technical University, ICEYE, NanoAvionics and other commercial companies for IoT, Earth observation and scientific applications.

“This Zeitgeist mission set a new standard for rideshare launches and not only was a successful demonstration of Exolaunch’s capabilities, but also paved the way for smallsat developers from around the world to participate in SpaceX’s SmallSat Rideshare Program,” said Jeanne Medvedeva, Vice President of Launch Services at Exolaunch. “We are proud to be working with so many of the world’s leading satellite and technology companies to advance the NewSpace industry, and we are already looking ahead to additional Falcon 9 launches later this year.”

Zeitgeist was Exolaunch’s 12th rideshare mission. As with previous launches, Exolaunch utilized its proprietary flight-proven separation systems – CarboNIX, the next generation shock-free separation system for microsatellites, upgraded modifications of EXOpod cubesat deployers, as well as its EXObox sequencers to flawlessly deploy its customers’ satellites into the target orbit. With this launch, Exolaunch has flown 140 smallsats on multiple launch vehicles.

Exolaunch’s manifest on the Transporter-1 mission includes the following satellites:

  • Charlie nanosatellite built by NanoAvionics for Aurora Insight: The first of two nanosatellites, built and integrated by NanoAvionics for US radio frequency spectrum and wireless data provider Aurora Insight.
  • CubeLCT nanosatellite from the German Aerospace Center (DLR): The CubeLCT is developed by DLR Institute of Communications and Navigation in close cooperation with its commercialization partner Tesat-Spacecom (TESAT) in Backnang. The satellite has been developed and integrated by the Danish company GomSpace. The development of the CubeLCT serves the demand for increasing bandwidth, resulting in new sensor capabilities on small satellites.
  • SOMP-IIb (Student’s Oxygen Measurement Project) nanosatellite from Dresden Technical University: Part of a student small satellite project of the Dresden Technical University, the goal is to measure atomic oxygen of the upper atmosphere, test flexible solar cells and more.
  • 3 x ICEYE satellites: Three more satellites of the commercial constellation of radar imaging satellites built and operated by ICEYE.
  • 24 satellites from unnamed commercial customers.
  • Exolaunch continues to make space more accessible through regular and cost-efficient rideshare missions for small satellites. In addition to successful satellite deployments from SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Exolaunch’s flight heritage includes Arianespace’s Soyuz-ST, RocketLab’s Electron, Roscosmos’ Soyuz-2 and a scheduled mission with ISRO’s PSLV later this year.

About Exolaunch

Exolaunch provides rideshare launch and deployment services for NewSpace companies. Its flight heritage includes the successful deployment of 140 small satellites into orbit through its global network of launch vehicle providers. Exolaunch enables the visions of New Space leaders, the world’s most innovative startups, research institutions, government organizations, and space agencies. The company also manufactures flight-proven separation systems to deliver the best-in-class integration services and deployment for small satellites.

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Northrop Grumman completes validation test of new rocket motor for United Launch Alliance

Northrop Grumman completes validation test of new rocket motor for

(21 January 2021 – Northrop Grumman) Northrop Grumman conducted a validation ground test of an extended length 63-inch-diameter Graphite Epoxy Motor (GEM 63XL) today in Promontory.

This variation of the company’s GEM 63 strap-on booster was developed in partnership with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to provide additional lift capability to the Vulcan Centaur rocket.

Northrop Grumman conducted a validation test of its GEM 63XL rocket motor on Jan. 21 at its Promontory, Utah, facility. The GEM 63XL will support the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle. (courtesy: Northrop Grumman)

“This new motor optimizes our best-in-class technologies and leverages flight-proven solid rocket propulsion designs to provide our customers with the most reliable product,” said Charlie Precourt, vice president, propulsion systems, Northrop Grumman. “Evolving the original GEM 63 design utilizes our decades of GEM strap-on booster expertise while enhancing capabilities for heavy-lift missions.”

During today’s static test, the motor fired for approximately 90 seconds, producing nearly 449,000 pounds of thrust to validate the performance capability of the motor design. Additionally, this firing verified the motor’s internal insulation, propellant grain, ballistics and nozzle in a hot-conditioned environment.

Northrop Grumman has supplied rocket propulsion to ULA and its heritage companies for a variety of launch vehicles since 1964. The GEM family of strap-on motors was developed starting in the early 1980s with the GEM 40 to support the Delta II launch vehicle. The company then followed with the GEM 46 for the Delta II Heavy, and the GEM 60, which flew 86 motors over 26 Delta IV launches before retiring in 2019. The first GEM 63 motors supported ULA’s Atlas V rocket in November 2020.

Northrop Grumman solves the toughest problems in space, aeronautics, defense and cyberspace to meet the ever evolving needs of our customers worldwide. Our 90,000 employees define possible every day using science, technology and engineering to create and deliver advanced systems, products and services.

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SSC and Airbus Defence and Space Netherlands to collaborate in optical communication

SSC and Airbus Defence and Space Netherlands to collaborate in

(21 January 2021 – SSC) SSC and Airbus Defence and Space Netherlands (Airbus DS NL) have signed an MOU for collaborative activities regarding ground equipment for space-to-ground optical communication.

The agreement will accelerate the development of commercially viable optical ground stations that will be offered by Airbus DS NL and used by SSC in delivering ground network services.

One of the collaborative activities in developing this capability includes optical communication tests against the CubeLCT optical terminal on the Photo Images Cross Laser (PIXL-1) Mission, organised in close co-operation with project partner TESAT. PIXL-1 will be launched the 22nd of January.

“Airbus Netherlands will be an important partner as SSC continues to add optical communication solutions to our global network of ground stations. Their modern infrastructure and industry-leading knowledge will be a vital contribution to our service offering”, says Stefan Gardefjord, CEO at SSC.

Optical communication between ground stations and satellites in orbit enables broadband connectivity via space, providing a secure and efficient solution for the fast-growing worldwide demand for data.

“Optical communication will be a game changer in this era in which we increasingly share data. We have a strong desire to work with Swedish Space Corporation to further build up our capabilities for optical ground stations, as they have been at the forefront of ground stations services for decades”, says Maarten Schippers, CEO at Airbus Defence and Space Netherlands.

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