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Air Force Academy serious about cadet-built satellites hitting space

April 8, 2017 Updated: April 8, 2017 at 10:08 pm
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Even the smallest details could mean the difference between mission success and failure, which has Cadet 1st Class Ben Enterline of the FalconSAT-8 mechanical engineering team fitting computer connection cables to an avionics housing shell April 4, which will become for the structural engineering model of the FalconSat-8 satellite. (John VanWinkle/ Air Force Academy)

A landmark rocket launch planned later this year will lift Air Force Academy hopes to orbit with two cadet-built satellites hitting space after years of planning.

The rocket will carry FalconSat-6, with its innovative ion thruster will test a new method of maneuvering satellites in orbit. Weighing in at less than 400 pounds, FalconSat-6 also packs experimental solar array and testing equipment to measure the gases released in a rocket launch. The launch is also carrying pint-sized FalconSat-7, which features a new type of space telescope called a photon sieve.

Both were built by academy cadets and are showcases of how the school uses hands-on learning to mold officers who graduate with real-world skills.

"Right now our focus is on two things - preparing to operate FalcaonSat-6 and designing FalconSat-8," said Col. Marty France, who heads space education at the academy.

Cadets have their own mission control ground station at the school, and they also build the software needed to communicate and maneuver their satellites in space.

The satellite payloads are designed in conjunction with the Air Force Research laboratory and help the service explore new technologies like the ion thruster while training cadets.

The school for more than two decades has had one satellite in orbit, another ready to launch and another in construction as new classes of cadets get a taste of space.

Senior cadet Matthew Krott spent more than 200 hours working on the academy's next satellite.

"We get to take our education beyond an academic experience and get our hands dirty," he said.

Just because the satellites are built by college undergrads doesn't mean they aren't a serious piece of equipment.

FalconSat-3, launched 10 years ago, is still flying. Cadets checked in on the satellite this month and reported that it has flown for the past 18 months without a single software hiccup - besting some of the top commercial satellites for reliability.

France said he's having an easier time these days finding cadets like Krott who want a future in the stars.

France said recent films including 2015 blockbuster The Martian, have inspired a new generation to explore space-related studies.

"We're in a good place," he said.

But dreaming about space and managing space missions are two different things. While in other college classes, sliding by with a C-grade is just fine, satellite students have to aim much higher.

Their homework is headed to orbit.

"It's hard work and it's real life and you have to have real dedication," France said.


Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx