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Community at large benefits from space innovation

LOS ANGELES (AFPN) -- In the midst of budget cuts and space program cost overruns, the Air Force has found a way to save taxpayers money and, at the same time, increase small satellite launch capability to its maximum potential.

It’s called the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter, or ESPA, ring.

Roughly five feet in diameter and two feet tall, the ESPA is a half-inch thick aluminum ring on which individual satellites can be mounted on one of six standardized secondary locations on the ring’s perimeter. It can support up to six 400-pound satellites.

This means that instead of launching one satellite with one rocket, the ESPA ring, which fits in between the rocket and the largest satellite, will enable that same launch vehicle to carry up to six additional small satellites for the cost of one launch.

Col. Joseph Boyle, the Space and Missile Systems Center’s chief launch engineer, said this could capture a whole new market for the EELV program and provide a significant boost to the research community.

In the near future, the ESPA ring will allow a number of EELV launches to have the capacity to offer the small satellite community an option to this significant new access to space. This could substantially reduce integration costs from an estimated $20 million per satellite per launch to $5 million. The launch costs, which are figured separately from the integration costs, are still being worked, according to program officials.

“We are looking at putting ESPA rings on as many Air Force launches as we possibly can,“ said Lt. Col. Dan Griffith, director of the Department of Defense Space Test Program, or STP, part of the center’s Detachment 12 at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.

The STP-1 launch, slated for fall, will be the inaugural flight of the ESPA ring. The mission’s manifest is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Orbital Express, the launch’s largest satellite, and the ESPA ring with five auxiliary satellites – MidSTAR-1 (Naval Academy); FalconSAT-3 (U.S. Air Force Academy); NPSAT1 (Naval Post Graduate School); STPSat-1 (STP built with Naval and Air Force Research Laboratory experiments) and CFESat (Los Alamos National Laboratories).

Aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle for this first mission, a total of six distinctly different satellites at two different altitudes and inclinations make this an important first launch of its kind, Colonel Griffith said.

From STP’s perspective, the second ESPA flight’s prospects are outstanding.

“There is a lot of interest in ESPA across the space community and the interest is growing. It was designed primarily with the science and technology community in mind, but there are very obvious potential applications if you have a small operational satellite,” Colonel Griffith said.

Other government agencies, universities and commercial space organizations can take advantage of this new small satellite launch capability.

Through STP’s partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, ESPA is also being considered for use on NASA missions, the colonel said.

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