NASA / The Aerospace Corporation

Studying the atmosphere for orbital re-entry insights

NASA’s LLITED mission was funded by a grant awarded to The Aerospace Corporation through NASA’s Division of Heliophysics in the Science Mission Directorate and selected for flight by the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI).  The LLITED mission consists of two 1.5U CubeSats designed, built, and operated by The Aerospace Corporation. The payloads are part of Spaceflight’s SXRS-6 mission (SpaceX Transporter-3) on a Falcon 9 rocket lifting off no earlier than January 2022.

The LLITED mission will study two late-day features of the atmosphere between 350 to 500 kilometers to improve understanding of the interactions between the neutral and electrically charged parts of the atmosphere. Understanding how these enhanced density features form, interact, and evolve may improve our upper-atmosphere modeling capabilities and orbital reentry and proximity predictions.

Each CubeSat will carry three instruments: GPS radio-occultation sensor provided by Aerospace, an ionization gauge from University of New Hampshire, and a planar ion probe provided by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. Understanding how these regions of enhanced density form, interact, and evolve may improve the ability to model the upper atmosphere and provide orbital re-entry and proximity predictions.

The LLITED spacecraft are headed to lower Earth orbit via a launch contract with Spaceflight, Inc. who is managing all aspects of mission management, integration and launch. Spaceflight will integrate the LLITED payloads into its Sherpa-LTC1 orbital transfer vehicle (OTV).

After the Sherpa LTC1 completes its initial mission deploying several spacecraft after separating from the Falcon 9 at 525 km, it will fire up and maneuver to a lower altitude, dropping to 500 km for deployment of both LLITED CubeSats to their desired orbital destination.

“Spaceflight’s full-service offering with our portfolio of Sherpa OTVs vehicles greatly increases the scientific opportunities for NASA, universities, and other organizations that require deployments to non-traditional orbital destinations,” said Valerie Skarupa, director of government business development for Spaceflight Inc. “We’ve enjoyed a long relationship with NASA, launching nearly 20 spacecraft for the organization over the years, and are focused on helping them get their spacecraft exactly where they need to be on orbit. It’s especially rewarding to be awarded this mission because it recognizes our experience with in-space transportation via our propulsive Sherpa vehicles.”

The two CubeSats, selected by the CSLI,  make up the 40th Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) mission. Managed by NASA’s Launch Services Program based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, CSLI  provides opportunities for small satellite payloads built by universities, high schools, and non-profit organizations to fly on upcoming launches. CubeSats are playing an increasingly larger role in exploration, technology demonstrations, scientific research, and educational investigations at NASA. To date, NASA has selected 202 CubeSat missions, 124 of which have been launched into space, with 37 more missions scheduled for launch within the next 12 months. The selected CubeSats represent participants from 42 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and 102 unique organizations.

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