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Air Force Research Laboratory prepares DSX spacecraft for launch

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Demonstration and Science Experiments (DSX) spacecraft in the final preparation stages before shipment to Cape Canaveral, Florida for launch on a Space X Falcon Heavy Rocket. (Courtesy photo)

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Demonstration and Science Experiments (DSX) spacecraft in the final preparation stages before shipment to Cape Canaveral, Florida for launch on a Space X Falcon Heavy Rocket. (Courtesy photo)

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. – Air Force Research Laboratory engineers have completed the final assembly and integration of the Demonstration and Science Experiments (DSX) spacecraft in preparation for its placement on the first-ever Department of Defense SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch vehicle.

The DOD Space Test Program (STP-2) mission, managed by the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, is targeting launch from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, with the launch window opening at 11:30 p.m. Eastern, June 24.

The first of its kind globally, the AFRL DSX flight experiment will conduct new research to advance DOD’s understanding of the processes governing the Van Allen radiation belts and the effect they have on spacecraft components. DSX’s elliptical path in medium Earth orbit (MEO) will increase understanding of this orbital regime, and advance our understanding of the interplay between waves and particles that underlie radiation belt dynamics, enabling better specification, forecasting and mitigation. This will ultimately enhance the nation’s capability to field resilient space systems. 

DSX’s mission is different from most other Air Force flight experiments as it is a purely scientific mission. The spacecraft is equipped with a unique suite of technologies such as space weather sensors and graphite antenna booms used to conduct experiments with very-low frequency (VLF) radio waves. DSX has two sets of immense deployable booms due to the large antenna requirements of these experiments. One set extends 80 meters tip-to-tip and the other extends 16 meters tip-to-tip, making the DSX spacecraft one of the largest deployable structures in orbit. 

“The space domain has never been more important to our nation than it is today,” said Maj. Gen. William Cooley, AFRL commander. “The DSX satellite experiment will greatly increase our understanding of the environment spacecraft operate in and will give us the knowledge to build even better satellites to protect and defend our space assets. I am immensely proud of the AFRL scientists, engineers, and technicians that conceived and built the DSX satellite.”

DSX will conduct on-orbit experiments for at least a year, to include:

  • A set of experiments, called the Wave Particle Interaction Experiments (WPIx), will investigate the influence of Very Low Frequency (VLF) radio waves on energetic particle behavior within the MEO environment. 
  • The Space Weather Experiments (SWx) will measure and map the distribution of energetic particles and plasma in MEO to improve environment models for spacecraft design and operations. 
  • Another collection of experiments, the Space Environment and Effects Experiment (SFx), will determine the effects of the energetic particles found within the Van Allen radiation belts on various spacecraft materials and electrical components. 

While these experiments focus on the space environment, DSX also hosts an experiment called the Adaptive Controls Experiment (ACE).  ACE will aid in analyzing the structural behavior of DSX’s large deployable antenna booms, yielding results which can be applied to the design and maneuvering of large spacecraft structures in the future.

The DSX program is led by the AFRL Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, with key team members from the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center headquartered at Los Angeles AFB, California. The DSX bus was manufactured by Sierra Nevada Corporation, headquartered in Sparks, Nevada. In addition to in-house development of several energetic particle instruments, various payloads have been developed and supported by mission partners including: University of Massachusetts Lowell in Lowell, Mass. Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., the AFRL Aerospace Systems Directorate at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, and NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Also include as part of the STP-2 mission will be Ball Aerospace’s Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM) spacecraft, enabling the first ever on-orbit demonstration of the AFRL developed ASCENT (Advanced Spacecraft Energetic Non-toxic Propellant) green propellant on orbit.

About AFRL

The Air Force Research Laboratory is the primary scientific research and development center for the United States Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space, and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,000 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit: www.afresearchlab.com.