Trailblazer, A University Nanosatellite Mission for Testing Rapid-Response Small Satellite Technologies in Low Earth Orbit

Trevor Sorensen
University of Kansas


The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is interested in using nanosats to perform space experiments, demonstrate new technology, develop operational systems, and integrate advanced responsive space system technology. One potential operational application of nanosats is using clusters of microsatellites that operate cooperatively to perform the function of a larger, single satellite. Each smaller satellite communicates with the others and shares the processing, communications, and payload or mission functions. There are a number of technology advancements needed to operationalize and enable tactical missions. These advancements include modular 'plug-n-play' satellite architectures and components; high performance tactical downlinks; adaptable, agile propulsion systems, and lean manufacturing, assembly and test.

The Kansas Universities' Technology Evaluation Satellite (KUTESat) program originated at the University of Kansas (KU) in 2002. The technical objective of the program is the development and operation of small pico- and nano-satellites that can demonstrate and test technologies and techniques necessary to accomplish various missions. The first satellite, KUTESat-1 Pathfinder, was designed to perform imaging from orbit and measure radiation using new technologies. The design and construction of this 1-kg satellite helped KU to develop the capability to produce and operate small research satellites. Pathfinder is due for launch in late 2005.

Nanosats are a rapid and low-cost technology platform for the space testing of a broad range of MEMS and nanotechnologies as well as new mission architectures. The KUTESat program offers a low-cost solution to this problem of acquiring "space heritage" for new technologies and mission concepts. These programs can undertake higher risk missions that would be otherwise avoided by the more conservative mission planners. Thus new MEMS and nanotechnologies related to avionics, guidance and control, communications, imaging and instrumentation are offered a rapid and low-cost approach to space testing that will help realize a rapid response space force.

The objective of the current research is to develop and fly a nanosatellite to test components, technologies, and concepts that are of use to AFRL, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and NASA, while providing a valuable contribution to the education of students who will soon be entering the space workforce.

KU is leading a team consisting of the NNSA Kansas City Plant, the AFRL, Fundamental Technologies LLC, and NASA JPL to design and execute the KUTESat-2 Trailblazer, mission using a 16-kg nanosatellite based on the Pathfinder satellite with much commonality in the avionics and ground system. The major technologies to be tested will include: a miniature distributed and adaptive S-band transceiver; a miniature maneuvering control system; standardized interface ("plug and play") electronic modules; various MEMS technologies, including a single-axis MEMS gyroscope; a micro sun sensor; and an array of miniature dosimeters to measure radiation; new advanced analog processing technology; and a miniature imager. New capabilities to be tested include a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) communication demonstration with the miniature S-band tranceiver, and demonstration of target inspection capability using a deployed inflated target. The Trailblazer is being prepared for a launch in 2007.