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Astronautics Department to retire ‘workhorse’ satellite

U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs/April 24, 2017

The Astronautics Department here is scheduled to transfer control of its longest-running satellite to amateur radio operators.

FalconSAT-3, built by cadets and faculty at the Astronautics Department, launched into space in March 2007 atop an Atlas V rocket for a one-year scientific mission.

“FalconSAT-3 has an amazing history,” said Maj. Anna Gunn-Golkin, astronautics instructor. “It’s been an Air Force science and training workhorse for 10 years. FalconSAT-3’s science mission continued well past its design lifetime and, since it’s still flying high after its primary mission was completed, the Air Force Academy has used it for four more years as a training satellite, certifying more than 700 cadets in space operations. Now, in its third life, FalconSAT-3 is being repurposed to support amateur satellite radio operators.”

FalconSAT is the Academy’s small-satellite engineering program. Satellites are designed, built, tested and operated by cadets under the guidance of faculty and technical staff members. The FalconSAT program is administered by the Academy’s Space Systems Research Center under the direction of the Astronautics Department. Most cadets who work on FalconSAT projects pursue a bachelor of science degree in astronautical engineering but cadets from other academic majors regularly enroll and participate in the FalconSAT capstone class.

Cadet 1st Class Levi Hilgenhold, an astronautical engineering major, is scheduled to present the FalconSAT-3 retirement project April 28 during an end-of-semester Capstone review. He said the FalconSAT program gives cadets a glimpse of the operational Air Force in an academic environment.

“It’s not just a class project, but a real Air Force mission with deadlines,” he said. “The re-purposing of FalconSAT-3 marks the end of a chapter, but it’s paving the way for two new satellite programs that will reach new and exciting levels.”

Hilgenhold said the FalconSAT Program is relevant to cadets and the U.S. research community.

“It brings cadets of all backgrounds together to deliver an Air Force asset that tests cutting-edge technology for spaceflight,” he said. “The experience we gain from the program, regardless of our assignment after we graduate, gives us an appreciation for the work required to accomplish similar projects.”

Jim White, president of Colorado Satellite Services and longtime supporter of the FalconSAT program, said the satellite is a great resource for the amateur radio community.

“We’re very pleased to receive it for use at the end of its science and training mission,” he said. “It will soon be made available for use [by] thousands of amateur radio licensees around the world as either a wide-area repeater or a store-and-forward messaging service.”

 FalconSAT Facts
  • FalconSAT is a two-semester undergraduate senior capstone engineering course
  • Cadets from multiple academic disciplines put engineering theory into practice by designing, building, testing, troubleshooting and delivering small satellites for launch into low-Earth orbit. They operate the satellites from the Academy’s satellite ground station and with the help of other Air Force and NASA assets.
  • The FalconSAT team is finalizing operations for FalconSAT-6, ready for orbit and slated for launch this fall aboard a Falcon Heavy launch vehicle produced by SpaceX
  • FalconSAT-8, in the early stages of design, sub-system test and assembly, has been funded for completion with launch tentatively slated for early 2019