ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When the next UP Aerospace rocket blasts into suborbit from Spaceport America on Nov. 12, it may “phone home” during the journey.
In fact, if all goes well, the rocket could chat constantly with ground crews throughout the mission by phone and text messaging, thanks to an experiment by the Albuquerque-based satellite phone distributor Satwest LLC, which is placing a satellite communications system on the vehicle.
“We’ll use proprietary technology to test our ability to make a satellite phone call in space,” said Satwest President and CEO Brian Barnett. “We’ll also send text messages to the phone throughout the journey.”
The Satwest experiment is one of six payloads chosen by NASA to fly on UP’s reusable rocket, known as the Spaceloft.
The Nov. 12 flight will be the second NASA-funded mission from the Spaceport since June, when UP successfully shot seven payloads into space and back.
UP is one of seven companies awarded contracts under NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, which pays aerospace firms for suborbital flights to test new technologies in space.
UP could earn a total of $4.7 million for eight NASA flights called for in its contract. The company earned about $600,000 for the June flight, and it will earn about the same for the upcoming one, said UP President and CEO Jerry Larson.
“We’re the first company under the NASA program flying these experiments into space,” Larson told the Journal. “That bodes well for NASA’s goals of getting meaningful science payloads flown at lower cost through private companies. The program helps to build small rocket businesses like ours, and to grow the commercial space industry in general.”
The June mission went off without a hitch, paving the way for more flights with UP Aerospace, said Dougal Naclise, technology manager for the NASA program.
“We loved working with UP,” he said. “It was easy to do, they were very professional and the whole mission was performed at the scale that we want and need. It would have involved ten to 100 times as many people if we had done it the way we used to under the shuttle missions.”
Apart from the Satwest experiment, the upcoming flight will include four university-developed payloads, and one from the U.S. Department of Defense Operationally Responsive Space Office at Kirtland Air Force Base:
— Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is placing a “missile grade” GPS receiver on the rocket to test its ability to work in space at high speed and rapidly changing angles. The DOD is also testing a new GPS receiver on the flight.
— Spain’s Barcelona Tech and the University of Alabama will jointly test how different fluids react in a microgravity environment.
— New Mexico State University is testing a new technology to accurately read fuel levels on vehicles in space.
— The New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology is placing a structural monitoring device on the Spaceloft that could help detect damage on rockets and satellites in the future.
As for Satwest, the company hopes to create a robust platform for satellite phones to be used in space, such as when paying passengers start flying to suborbit on Virgin Galactic spaceships from Spaceport America.
“As commercial space flights take off, most passengers will want access to social media during flight, like being able to take snapshots and send them down real time,” Barnett said. “This test is the first of many baby steps to get to that vision.”
Satwest already tested its system on a balloon flight this summer provided by Near Space Corp., an Oregon company that NASA contracted for high-altitude payload testing.
During that flight, which reached about 97,000 feet, a group of students from the Bosque School in Albuquerque successfully sent text messages back and forth to the satellite phone, Barnett said. The students will perform the same tasks again during the UP flight at the Spaceport.