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Air Force cadet-built satellite blasts off with Falcon 9 rocket

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express, launches from Space Launch Complex-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base on Dec. 3, 2018.

MICHAEL PETERSON/U.S. AIR FORCE

By TOM ROEDER | The Gazette | Published: December 4, 2018

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) A rousing cheer went up in an auditorium at the Air Force Academy as a cadet-built satellite hurtled toward orbit Monday aboard a Space X rocket, marking the latest milestone for the academy's ambitious student space program.

The reusable Falcon 9 rocket launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., at 11:30 a.m., carrying a record 64 satellites, ending days of delays that have halted planned celebrations at the school. Students were running the diminutive FalconSat-6 through a series of on-orbit tests by Monday night.

The academy's Col. Luke Sauter said the satellite will "demonstrate a bunch of great Air Force Research Laboratory technologies," including an electric thruster that could change how the service maneuvers spacecraft.

Cadets planned for a late night at the academy's space operations center, where a bank of computers is set up to control the spacecraft.

Weighing in at under 400 pounds, the satellite was designed and built at the academy and carries a variety of instruments, an experimental solar array and testing equipment to measure gases released in a rocket launch.

The cadet craft was one of 64 small satellites sent aloft from 34 private and public organizations representing 17 countries: the U.S., Australia, Italy, Netherlands, Finland, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Germany, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Thailand, Poland, Canada, Brazil and India.

Sauter said cadets stayed busy over the past year keeping their satellite ready for space after earlier launches were delayed. Cadets had to recharge the satellite's batteries and run it back through rigorous tests to ensure it was ready for orbit.

The decades-old academy space program is the only one of its kind in America, pushing undergraduate students to design and build machines to accomplish demanding Air Force technology tests.

"First and foremost, it gives them appreciation for how hard it is to do real things," Sauter said.

The cadet satellite program, established in the 1990s, is backed by a staff of technical experts, machinists and engineers. The program sets up cadets from a variety of disciplines in a miniature aerospace program to build a spacecraft that meets the Air Force's needs.

The requirements largely come from Air Force experts at Space Command in Colorado Springs and the service's research arm in Ohio.

The academy has a full testing lab where the satellites are run through their paces on the ground before they launch. Because the satellites are often years in the making, the program is passed from class to class, with each making progress to develop the craft.

For flying the satellites in space, the academy has established its own cadet space operations squadron, which runs the diminutive academy birds with the same standards set by the satellite troops at Schriever Air Force Base.

While satellites have been a focus for the academy for generations, the topic never has loomed larger for the school. President Donald Trump has proposed creation of a separate Space Force in a move he says will restore America's military dominance in orbit.

The new focus in space is mirrored by the academy, which has worked to reinvigorate its space programs in recent years.
The new satellite FalconSat-6 joins an older bird, FalconSat-3, in space. The earlier satellite was launched in 2007 and for more than a decade gave cadets real-world experience in controlling a satellite in space.

Soon, though, the heavens will be relatively crowded with Air Force Academy satellites.

FalconSat-7, due for launch next spring, was built to test an experimental space telescope. FalconSat-8, also to be ready for launch next year, likewise carries a thruster and several other experiments.

Cadets now are designing FalconSat-X, the next generation of academy satellites.

But before they get too carried away with the future fleet, cadets will have plenty of work managing FalconSat-6, Sauter said.

That will start Tuesday, when the satellite sends and receives its first messages from cadets inside the school's mission control room.

"We have a mission to take the satellite through its paces," Sauter said.
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