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ORS Office Teams with University of Hawaii on Small Sat Launcher

Luke Flynn, director of the Hawaii Space Flight Laboratory, displays a model of the Super Strypi launcher. Credit: Hawaii Space Flight Laboratory photo

WASHINGTON — The University of Hawaii and the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office are on track to debut a new small-satellite launcher this October in what would be the first space launch from the Aloha State.

The 55-kilogram Hyperspectral Imaging Aeronautical Kinematic Analysis, or HIAKA, satellite will launch atop a three-stage, solid-fueled rocket assembled by the university’s Hawaii Space Flight Laboratory in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratory of Albuquerque, N.M, and Sacramento, Calif.-based Aerojet Corp., which supplied the motors.

The spin-stabilized, rail-launched Super Strypi launcher is capable of placing up to 300 kilograms of payload into low Earth orbit. Based on designs developed by Sandia as part of nuclear testing programs dating back to the 1960s, the Super Strypi is ultimately expected to cost about $16 million per mission, according to Luke Flynn, director of the Hawaii Space Flight Laboratory, the prime contractor on the project.

Officials involved in the project hope the new launcher will help jump-start a Hawaiian space industry while providing a low-cost launch option for small satellites, including cubesats, which are becoming increasingly popular with universities and government agencies. U.S. defense organizations including the Army, the Air Force and even the National Reconnaissance Office, which is known for building billion-dollar satellites that launch on heavy-lift rockets, have been investing in cubesats in recent years.

“This creates a win-win for the university, for the country, for the state, and also for the corporations that are willing to invest,” Flynn said in a briefing for reporters at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 10.

Measuring 10 centimeters on a side, cubesats can serve as standalone platforms or be bolted together to create larger satellites. While cubesats can be assembled at a relatively low cost and are becoming increasingly capable due to breakthroughs in electronics miniaturization, high launch costs have been a barrier to their wider utilization.

The HIAKA satellite will launch from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai in a mission that the ORS Office also refers to as ORS-4. Typically the Pacific Missile Range Facility is used for ballistic missile defense testing.

The satellite will gather imagery and monitor the environment during its planned one-year mission. The ORS-4 launch also will carry aloft 13 cubesats flying as secondary payloads, according to a fact sheet prepared by the ORS Office.

The ORS Office’s involvement in the mission, in addition to financial backing, is primarily focused on fielding a low-cost launcher for small satellites, according to the fact sheet. The ORS Office was set up to develop low-cost space capabilities quickly in response to emerging military needs.

The total cost of the ORS-4 mission, including development of the HIAKA satellite and Super Strypi launcher, is unclear. Viewgraphs prepared in 2011 by the University of Hawaii describe the mission, formerly known as Low Earth Orbiting Nanosatellite Integrated Defense Autonomous System, or LEONIDAS, as a congressionally directed program, meaning it owes its existence to a congressional benefactor. The program has been funded by Congress since 2007, that document says.

According to Washing-|tonWatch.com, which tracks congressional spending bills, the LEONIDAS program received a $10 million earmark in 2010 at the request of Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who died late last year. Flynn said the university has contributed about $2 million to the program.

The public affairs office at Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center was unable to provide a total cost figure for ORS-4 by press time.

For Hawaii, the project is viewed as an educational as well as an economic incubator. Much of the work on the mission is being performed by University of Hawaii students, graduate students and professors. The satellite’s ground control station will be operated by students at Kauai Community College.

“The work on this mission is creating invaluable workforce development opportunities and training for students across the University of Hawaii system,” the school’s president, M.R.C. Greenwood, said in a press release. “We hope our graduates will go to work for related research and technology companies right here in Hawaii or will go on to form their own space-science related business.”

The HIAKA launch is the second of the year planned by the ORS Office. The first is the ORS-3 mission, which is scheduled to launch in September from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia aboard a Minotaur 1 rocket.

The mission is intended to test various ORS enabling technologies, according to an ORS Office fact sheet.

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