Clouds parted over Florida Sunday and a yearslong effort to put an Air Force Academy satellite into orbit concluded with a fiery launch of the Space Force’s secretive X-37B robotic space plane.
FalconSat-8, designed and built by cadets, will test new technologies for the Space Force while giving cadets experience in controlling the satellite from a ground station on the 18,500-acre campus in northern Colorado Springs.
“It's how to train engineers by getting their hands dirty,” said Col. Luke Sauter, who oversees the academy’s space efforts.
The satellite, which will be deployed to orbit in the coming weeks from the space plane, grows the academy’s fleet of spacecraft in orbit. The school was already the only undergraduate institution in America with its own satellite.
And FalconSat-8 is no hobbyist’s toy. Weighing 300 pounds, the satellite is the size of a small refrigerator and carries high-tech gear, including an experimental thruster to propel it through space and a cutting-edge antenna that will test whether new, compact antenna designs can work as well in space as their larger cousins.
The satellite was initially set for a Saturday launch, which was delayed by weather.
One of those celebrating the weekend launch was Hunter Ahlquist, who worked on FalconSate-8 before he graduated from the academy in 2019.
“The FalconSat program introduced us to a different ways of learning,” said Ahlquist, who helped lead a testing regimen for the spacecraft. “We have to adapt to solve problems that don't have cut-and-dried answers.”
The academy’s space program has become a regular production line, with manufacture of a new satellite underway and design of its successor in the works even as cadets operate their satellite fleet in space.
The satellites are underwritten by the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Air Force Institute of Technology, which use the academy program as a test bed for new ideas.
FalconSat-8 is loaded with new ideas down to the smallest detail. Even the insulation on some of its wiring is cutting edge, with an experiment to test a new form of carbon shielding.
But getting the satellite to orbit means more than strapping it inside the X-37B.
Sauter described an extensive test regimen that pushes the satellite to its limits on the ground before it is launched.
“We're going to shake it, we're going to bake it and we're going to radiate it,” he explained.
The shaking simulates the rigors of launch and spaceflight and tested the structural integrity of FalconSat-8. The baking ran the satellite through extreme cold and heat to simulate temperatures in space.
The radiation tests are necessary because spacecraft are no longer protected by Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field, which shield us from radiation in space.
Ahlquist, who is studying for a master’s degree in aerospace engineering at Purdue University, said helping with the testing program gave him knowledge that can’t be found in a classroom.
“It exposed me a lot to the operational side of engineering,” he said.
Sauter knows the value of the FalconSat program firsthand. A 2002 graduate of the academy, Sauter worked on earlier academy satellites.
After the academy, Sauter went on to help develop small satellites for the Air Force and then larger machines for the National Reconnaissance Office before he returned to the school to run its astronautics program.
The latest satellite got to ride to orbit in style on the X-37B, the classified unmanned space shuttle the Space Force uses to conduct secret tests in orbit.
The Air Force has acknowledged the space plane’s existence for years, but has never discussed what the spacecraft does on its trips to orbit, which can last a year or longer.
The latest mission, the sixth launch of the X-37B since 2010, pulled back the curtain on the program a bit, revealing for the first time that it can carry satellites.
The academy is now gearing up for the release of FalconSat-8, with trained crews of cadets at the ready to control the satellite when it is freed from its mothership.
It will join FalconSat-6, which has been in orbit since 2018 and is controlled from the academy.
But the new satellite has already accomplished much of its mission: training a new generation of cadets.
“We have had roughly 175 cadets who have participated,” Sauter said.