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News

Cibola flight experiment to test eight technologies in space

DOE/Los Alamos National Laboratory : 12 January, 2007  (Technical Article)
A satellite smaller than an armchair is departing Los Alamos National Laboratory this week, heading for a last phase of testing before its December launch. The Cibola Flight Experiment will bear eight new technologies for space flight validation, including a new power supply, inflatable antennas, deployable booms, a new type of launch-vehicle separation system, and a high-density pack of AA lithium-ion batteries.
The new payload's primary mission is to serve as a technology pathfinder for the United States Department of Energy's Office of Research and Development, NA-22. Los Alamos is responsible for all mission aspects, including procurement of the satellite bus, the payload, which has been under development at Los Alamos for the past six years, and the satellite-tracking facility at the Laboratory.

Cibola is the fourth experimental satellite project undertaken by the National Nuclear Security Administration and NA-22. 'These pathfinder efforts are science and technology demonstration platforms that pave the way for inserting new technologies into future NA-22, Department of Defense, and NASA space missions,' said Diane Roussel-Dupre of the International, Space and Response Division's Space Data Systems group, the CFE project leader.

The Cibola effort builds upon the Los Alamos experience gained by executing the ALEXIS and FORTE satellite projects., which also flew new technologies as space validation experiments. The heart of the mission lies in the onboard supercomputer that will process the data in space.

Cibola's powerful supercomputer will process data and store refined answers rather than raw data for transmission to the ground, a far more efficient plan than sending massive raw data files that take time and power to transmit.

The flight computer is based upon an emerging technology known as field programmable gate arrays, which can be reconfigured, or reprogrammed, operating roughly 100 times faster than equipment currently available to spaceflight. The CFE team has been actively testing Xilinx, Inc. FPGA's since 1999 to develop techniques for use in a radiation space environment. Cibola will validate the space use of the Xilinx commercial, off-the-shelf FPGAs originally intended for use on the ground.

'What's really exciting,' said Roussel-Dupre, 'is that after Cibola validates the hardware for space flight, we can change the processing after the satellite is in orbit.'

'The future systems will evolve to meet changing requirements, rather than our having to send up an entirely new satellite for each changing mission,' she said.

The Cibola payload system will also have a science mission to study lightning, ionospheric disturbances, and other sources of radio frequency atmospheric noise. Cibola will also explore the behavior of the ionosphere and its effect on communications. Relatively little is understood about the dynamics of storm conditions in the ionosphere, and the Cibola Flight Experient will also help develop scientists' understanding of ionospheric weather morphology, along with developing a predictive capability in determining the effects on communications and other space operations.

The satellite will be launched on the STP-1 mission by the U.S. Department of Defense Space Test Program on the U.S. Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle using the the vehicle's Secondary Payload Adapter, which allows up to six small satellites to be launched as 'piggyback' passengers with larger spacecraft.

Surrey Satellite Technology, Ltd. of England built the small host satellite body, CFESat, in 27 months using heritage satellite designs from the Surrey's disaster monitoring constellation and TopSat mission. In order to fit into the allowable launch volume, the satellite body measures a mere 24 by 24 by 38 inches and weighs 350 pounds.

Once in orbit the spacecraft will deploy four solar panels, providing 110 watts of orbit-averaged power, then deploy two long booms and finally deploy three payload antennas: one on the Earth-facing deck and one each on the two previously deployed booms.

With its payload integration at Los Alamos complete, the satellite is on the road to Albuquerque for a round of additional environmental testing (thermal vacuum and vibration) to simulate the severe environment of space. It will be then shipped to Cape Canaveral Air Station mid-October for integration onto the Atlas V launch vehicle. The satellite will be placed into an orbit with an altitude of 350 miles and an orbital inclination that will allow observation of land areas as far north as the central United States and as far south as the tip of Africa.

As with the previous Los Alamos ALEXIS and FORTE satellite missions, Cibola will utilize a specialized ground tracking station located at Los Alamos, and all satellite operations and data analysis will be conducted from the site.

From start to finish, there will have been less than three years from Cibola's selection for the STP-1 launch to the delivery of an aggressive, fully space-qualified satellite to the launch site, a significant accomplishment.
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