Cal Poly slated to join new SpaceX rideshare

Jan 8, 2020

This year, the rocket company SpaceX is beginning a new series of launches at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, and a student project from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo is scheduled to be on board SpaceX's new ridesharing program to space.

Much like using ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft, just about anyone can now book a trip to space. Specifically, people can send a small satellites into low or medium earth orbit on a rocket, for the new price of $1 million dollars.

The price has gone down. It used to cost $2.5 million. A new SpaceX program called SmallSat Rideshare is aimed at shaking up the market of putting small satellites, or CubeSats, in space. Previously, the way to get a CubeSat into space was to find a scheduled mission and see if the rocket’s owner had room on board. The new SpaceX program has slots available on its Falcon 9 rocket for ride-alongs on 29 dedicated launches through the end of 2021. The first launch is slated for March.

John Bellardo runs PolySat, Cal Poly’s CubeSat lab in San Luis Obispo, where the industry standard specifications for CubeSats were created in 1999. Lab engineers are now trying to get more objects into space.

“We’re producing more,” Bellardo said. “We’re most focused on the spacecraft.”

Cal Poly is working with the National Science Foundation and NASA to send up the CubeSate ExoCube2 this spring on a rideshare. It will be the university’s fourteenth foray into space.

“What we’re doing is flying a mass spectrometer,” Bellardo said. “A mass spectrometer is going to measure the particle densities of particular elements.”

In layman’s terms, Cal Poly is going to gather readings on space weather.

Bailey Wickam is a Cal Poly student and ExoCube2’s project manager.

“The purpose of [ExoCube2] is to characterize the particles of upper atmosphere, because we don’t have data on that since the 1960s,” Wickam said. “So we can do this complicated science mission in a pretty small payload at a pretty low cost, which is really interesting.”

An increasing number of institutions and groups are trying to get spacecraft into orbit to study, observe and communicate things. Cal Poly students and professors are now trying to develop a CubeSat with propulsion to move spacecraft around.

But with so many small spacecraft flying around the Earth, and the price dropping to do so, aerospace engineers are also working on sustainable models for putting objects into space, and cleaning up some of the space junk already there.

KCBX News will have more on efforts to reduce debris in space later this year.