Credit: Spaceflight

A red flag has been raised by a satellite and orbital debris analyst regarding the upcoming launch of SSO-A, currently scheduled for liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on November 19.

The bragging rights about the SmallSat Express involve the largest rideshare mission from a U.S.-based launch vehicle – SpaceX Falcon 9 booster — with 25 percent of the customers launching for the first time.

Targeted for sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), the mission is dubbed SSO-A: SmallSat Express.

Mission management provider, Spaceflight, has contracted with more than 70 spacecraft from approximately 35 different organizations, all to be propelled skyward by a SpaceX Falcon 9. Spaceflight is a service offering of Spaceflight Industries, based in Seattle, Washington.

Perhaps in a bit of irony, the 18th Space Control Squadron at Vandenberg Air Force Base  is tasked with providing 24/7 support to the space sensor network, maintaining the space catalog and managing United States Strategic Command’s (USSTRATCOM) space situational awareness (SSA) sharing program to United States, foreign government, and commercial entities.

SHERPA platforms

“What they [Spaceflight] haven’t shared is how these 70+ satellites are going to be deployed,” says T.S. Kelso of CelesTrak, an analytical group that keeps an eye on Earth-orbiting objects. “I checked with one of the operators—trying to get a head start on how we’re going to ID all of these—and learned that the two SHERPA platforms are going to be released from the Falcon 9 with no attitude control or attitude determination.”

SHERPA is a free-flying secondary payload dispenser.

Credit: Spaceflight

Kelso’s bottom line: “I think this is not only irresponsible from a safety of flight perspective, but it jeopardizes the time and resources of many of the small operators who may never even hear from their satellites,” he told Inside Outer Space.

Space debris

Kelso says that his guess is that about a third of the satellites released will basically be space debris on release.

The SHERPA platforms will be in uncontrolled tumbles as they release these payloads. Since there will be no thrusting between deployments (with no attitude control), everything will likely be released into a big cloud. The only initial information satellite operators will have will be the post-deployment state vectors from SpaceX for the two SHERPA platforms, Kelso adds.

Credit: Spaceflight



Sorting out the mess

Cautions Kelso, there will be difficulties in sorting out this kind of mess.

“Having 70+ objects—many of which look the same to a radar—will result in observations being assigned to multiple tracks and causing bad orbits, which further compounds track association,” Kelso notes. “Until good tracks exist, it is impossible to ID the satellite…if you are a small operator and can’t find your satellite, you may be unable to do things required to keep that satellite healthy, like deploying arrays or controlling power usage.”

In a recently posted paper, “Challenges Identifying Newly Launched Objects” — Kelso outlines this issue:

Go to this video about Spaceflight’s SSO-A integrated payload stack:

2 Responses to “Cluttering Space: Upcoming Launch Red Flagged”

  • Tregonsee says:

    As part of an organization which has successfully deployed 3 CubeSats, and has one on SSO-A, we are well aware of the rapidly increasing time to identify our satellites due to the large number and relatively small delta-vs. Definitive identification took well over 2 weeks after the last individual objects was announced by CSpOC on our last mission. Even then there were multiple contenders.

    However, for exactly the same reasons, it didn’t matter. Any one of several objects worked well enough for command, control, and commissioning. There is no question that there is an issue which does need to be addressed. However, for the typical CubeSat operator it may be a minor inconvenience. Operators with more demanding missions will probably be more easily identified for multiple reason. It will be interesting to compare the number of satellites Dead on Deployment from SSO-A the the normal statistics.

  • RICHARD LEE says:

    Is it not true that the use of these satellites is to replace Cell towers and all wireless communication will be direct satellite communication? Of course this is down the line some years.
    Orange County, CA

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