We had been working toward our first generation Waypoint satellite, which was a 12U cubesat weighing 18 kg. It had a 21 cm primary mirror and could provide 1 meter ground resolution. To keep the satellite small enough to fit the 12U cubesat form factor, the secondary mirror was kept inside before launch, then it would be extended to full length when in orbit.
In early 2019, we updated our business plan to include our second generation Viewpoint satellite, which would be a 150 kg smallsat. It has a 50 cm primary mirror and will be able to provide 30 cm ground resolution. When we did a financial analysis, we saw that the Viewpoint satellite had a better business case than the smaller Waypoint satellite. When we talked to potential customers and investors, there was more interest in the Viewpoint satellite because of its higher resolution.
It really didn’t make sense to do both at the same time, so we put the Waypoint satellite on hold, and switched our priority to the Viewpoint. Although building and launching the Viewpoint was more expensive than the Waypoint, it had much more capability per dollar. The Viewpoint satellite is much larger than the Waypoint, so it’s much easier to make everything fit. It took extra work and time to fit all the components like batteries and momentum wheels into the Waypoint, which had a volume of about 12 liters ( one cubesat “U” is one liter). Now it is much easier fitting even more components into the Viewpoint, which has a volume of about 450 liters.
Then in August, SpaceX announced their smallsat rideshare program. They would launch smallsats up to 200 kg for $1M. The cost to launch the Viewpoint and the much smaller Waypoint was suddenly about the same! This situation improved the business case for the Viewpoint satellite even more. We haven’t made a decision on which launcher will be used, but it’s nice to have another provider.
The Viewpoint will use the same optical architecture as the Waypoint, except the mirrors will be larger, and the secondary mirror and main light baffle will be fixed rather than extending. The cameras, electronics, and software architecture will be the same, except a low noise ultraviolet CMOS camera will be substituted for the EMCCD camera. The manufacturer of the EMCCD we were going to use is stopping production of all their CCD’s and will be only making CMOS imagers. Because we are able to re-use so much of the Waypoint design for the Viewpoint satellite, we should be able to launch the first Viewpoint in early 2022.
With all the extra room in the Viewpoint, we will add an ion engine for propulsion to maintain a low orbital height of 330 km, where it will allow better ground resolution. This orbital height is below the ISS (International Space Station) and will be below all of the communication satellites from SpaceX and Amazon. The lower orbital height shouldn’t make a difference for astronomy and Space Domain Awareness (which used to be called Space Situational Awareness). We’ll also use the propulsion capability to avoid space debris, although there will be a lot less debris at 330 km than at higher orbits. Overall, propulsion will provide a lot more Earth observation performance with only a small increase in cost.
In September, we attended AMOS, the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies Conference. We learned a lot about satellite collision avoidance, and now we see how the Viewpoint constellation can help in collision avoidance. When two space objects look like they might collide, the US Air Force (and soon, private industry) will issue a “conjunction alert” about a week before the possible collision. The conjunction alert isn’t precise enough to determine if an actual collision may occur, so ground radar and ground telescopes are used to take additional measurements to refine the orbital information of the two objects. If the objects still look like they will get too close, and if one or both objects can maneuver, the refined orbital information can help decide the maneuver direction. We had the opportunity to talk to companies about the Viewpoint capabilities for orbit determination, and there is definite interest there, especially when we have multiple Viewpoint satellites available. This capability will become more and more important as thousands and tens of thousands of satellites are put into space.
Also in September, we filed a patent application for our ion engine accelerator. This accelerator can be used for high power ion engines, and we plan to use it for asteroid mining. It probably won’t make sense to use it on our Viewpoint satellites, since it is better suited for very large space vehicles, but small prototype versions can be tested on future Viewpoint satellites. We’ll talk more about this accelerator when the patent application is published by the US patent office in two years.
In the meantime, we have been hard at work at building a full scale model of the Viewpoint satellite. We will be showing the Viewpoint model at our exhibit booth at the AAS (American Astronomical Society) conference in early January. The model uses 6061 aluminum with laser drilled holes and includes 3D printed plastic sub-panels. Here’s a photo of the model and the exhibit gear on a pallet, ready to be shipped to Hawaii.
We wish you the best of the holidays!