Update: CubeSat Misfire Outside ISS

Update: A report in SpaceNews on the NanoRacks cubesat deployment problem includes a statement from the company confirming that the issue is electrical rather than mechanical, and is apparently tied to the deployer’s command box, as a new one will be sent to the station on a future supply flight. Deployments are estimated to resume “in early 2015.”

In the meantime, Planet Labs is scheduled to send another “flock” of cubesats to ISS in October.

Original story:

A strange little tale is unfolding aboard the International Space Station.  When it launched to orbit on July 13, the Orbital Sciences Cygnus resupply vessel (Orb-2) was carrying a second “flock” of 28 Dove Earth observation cubesats for PlanetLabs.

The diminutive spacecraft are ferried to ISS already contained within a NanoRacks Cubsat Deployer (NRCSD) which is unloaded from the cargo vessel and transferred to the Japanese Experiment Module, where they are installed on top of the Multi Purpose Experiment Platform, and then placed within a small airlock which resembles nothing so much as a torpedo tube. Considering how the story played out, it’s a good thing the resemblance is superficial.

After being inserted into the airlock where it sits on a slide-out tray, the Japanese Experiment Module Remote Manipulator System (JEMRMS) which is similar to Canadarm 2 only smaller, is used to grasp the platform containing the NRCSD’s and then point them on a clear path away from the Station for the moment of launch.

This process worked quite well early in the year when the first “flock” of 28 cubesats developed by Planet Labs was released. This time, it has been a little tougher sledding.

Deployments began on Tuesday the 19th, with the first two cubesats released into orbit. Overnight, two more deployers #2 and #3 released two Doves each, bringing the total released from the station to 6. Then the trouble started. The next planned deployment, from units #4 and #5 did not respond to commands from the ground team. Number 6 did function however, flinging two more cubesats into space.  Then numbers 7 and 8 failed as well.

That wasn’t all. According to NASA’s On-Orbit Status report from Monday

“On Saturday, ground teams observed the inadvertent deploy (emphasis added) of two Cosmogia CubeSats from Deployer #5 of the NanoRack Cubesat Deployer (NRCSD). The ISS was still in the deploy attitude and the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM) Remote Manipulator System (JEMRMS) was still positioned for the deployment. No issues have been identified with the deployment trajectory, the CubeSats or the ISS. Ground teams are investigating the probable cause and discussing future operations with the NRCSD and CubeSats remaining in the deployer.”

Cosmogia is the old named for Planet Labs, and it is not clear why NASA continues to call it that, but by any name, it makes for a developing story which hopefully has a positive ending. Updates as they become available.

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