US Navy nanosatellite launch delayed for further inspections

The launch of a US Navy nanosatellite designed to extend the range of ultra-high frequency (UHF) communications into the polar regions was delayed, SpaceX has confirmed.

Illustration: US Air Force file photo of a Falcon 9 launch

The launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., was scheduled for November 19 and was also significant for SpaceX as one of its Falcon 9 rocket cores was set to be used for a record-breaking third mission.

SpaceX said the launch of Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express was delayed to conduct additional pre-flight inspections, adding that a new launch date would be confirmed once the inspections were completed.

The Integrated Communications Extension Capability (ICE-Cap) payload, a 3U nanosatellite similar in size to a loaf of bread, will be commercially launched as part of the SSO-A mission on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with more than 70 other satellites. In addition to the ICE-Cap satellite, the mission will launch three other Navy projects. These even-smaller 1U nanosatellites measure only 10 centimeters per side.

ICE-Cap will demonstrate the ability of low-Earth orbit satellites to extend the geographic coverage of the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) and legacy UHF Follow-On (UFO) satellite constellations to the polar regions.

MUOS gives mobile forces cell-phone-like capabilities via the Wideband Code Division Multiple Access, or WCDMA, waveform while also supporting the legacy UHF currently provided by the UFO satellites. Currently, four MUOS satellites with one on-orbit spare make up the constellation, providing UHF coverage between 65 degrees north and 65 degrees south latitude. The ICE-Cap satellite will act as a relay to the existing MUOS constellation and, based on its orbit, extend communications into the polar regions for mobile forces.

“This is a force multiplier,” said Capt. Chris DeSena, program manager, Navy Communications Satellite Program Office at PEO Space Systems. “We are delivering warfighting capability that naval forces and their partners need to compete, deter and win. The Arctic portion of maritime domain is becoming more active and important, and MUOS and ICE-Cap help ensure we have advantages in any challenges we might face there.”

The smaller Navy-built satellites will serve as calibration targets and technology demonstrations to improve tracking of small objects in space. These satellites will host different combinations of radio frequency reflectors that reflect radar for improved space object tracking and optical reflectors that reflect lasers for precise measurement of satellite altitude.

A traditional satellite often has an eight- to 10-year design cycle and is expected to remain on orbit for 15 to 20 years. A nanosatellite, by comparison, has a 12- to 18-month design cycle and an expected lifespan of about three years. These shortened timelines allow for constant technology insertion. The Navy satellites on the SSO-A mission have taken advantage of these advances and are a pathfinder for future navy space efforts.