International Space Station to launch satellite developed at Kirtland AFB

The Air Force Research Laboratory's Very Low Frequency Propagation Mapper (VPM) satellite with solar panels deployed.


By SCOTT TURNER | Albuquerque Journal | Published: January 30, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — Astronauts are expected to launch a satellite from the International Space Station on Friday that was developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base. The satellite will help monitor the effects of the Van Allen radiation belts on spacecraft orbiting the earth.

The satellite — known as the Very Low Frequency Propagation Mapper, or VPM — was launched in December on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and carried to the station in a SpaceX Dragon resupply capsule.

Air Force Capt. Stephen Tullino, VPM mission manager, said the satellite will be sent to a higher orbit and ejected by a Northrop Grumman Cygnus resupply capsule.

“It’s a big collaboration by the AFRL, NASA and the Space Test Program,” he said.

The VPM was built at the Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland by a team of about 60 people, Tullino said. It is the result of a 2½-year effort. The VPM program cost roughly $4.5 million.

“The spacecraft itself, we used commercially available parts,” he said.

Its mission is to collect data from the Demonstration and Science Experiments, or DSX, satellite the Air Force launched in June 2019. The DSX was also developed at Kirtland and is in the middle of experimental operations, DSX deputy program manager Rachel Delaney said.

“VPM is a ‘CubeSat’ satellite that measures 4 inches long, 8 inches wide and 12 inches high whose mission is to measure very low frequency, or VLF, waves within the magnetosphere,” Tullino said. “It will primarily be a third-party observer satellite to the DSX mission to prove that VLF waves can be injected within the magnetosphere.”

“One’s a shouter (DSX) and the other is a listener (VPM),” Michael Starks, base environment mission lead, said of how the two satellites will be working together.

Understanding the workings of Van Allen radiation belts and their impact on satellites is among the goals of the mission.

“They’re really looking to understand the dynamics of those radiation belts,” Starks said. He said the particles can affect the electronics of satellites. “They don’t just sit there, they change. And they are driven by these little frequency radio waves. They are listening with what’s going on in nature … we know this wave causes that to happen and that wave causes this to happen. … If we can understand that, then we can predict what they are going to do.”

The VPM will be operated by a team at Kirtland Air Force Base. Tullino said his team is expected to hear from VPM within an hour after it is ejected from the Cygnus and into orbit.

“My guys will be operating the satellite and Dr. Starks’ guys will take the science data that we download and analyze it,” Tullino said. He said there will also be team members from Stanford and from the University of Colorado in Boulder.

VPM will also test commercial communication systems during its mission. It will be one of the first Department of Defense missions to use the global communication network known as Kongsberg Satellite Services.

VPM will remain in low-Earth orbit for 364 days.

©2020 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)
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The Air Force Research Laboratory's Very Low Frequency Propagation Mapper (VPM) satellite with VPM buttoned up.

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