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Millennium Space System’s ALTAIR™ Satellite


"Our customers can deploy space systems at a fraction of the cost and time of the traditional aerospace companies and can proceed with technology refreshes at a much faster pace. NI helps us take advantage of these COTS efficiencies for the ALTAIR spacecraft because of the company’s tight integration of the Single-Board RIO hardware with the LabVIEW Real-Time Module and the LabVIEW FPGA Module."

- Ted Carancho, Millennium Space Systems

The Challenge:
Developing a low-cost CubeSat that is 27U (30 x 30 x 30 cm) or smaller in size for high pointing accuracy performance and the capability to carry a 50 kg payload with 90 W of orbit average power.

The Solution:
Using the sbRIO-9651 System on Module (SOM) and the tight integration of the LabVIEW Real-Time Module and the LabVIEW FPGA Module to cut development time down to a year (versus a typical span of 4-5 years for spacecraft hardware and software development) and architect a reusable software core that can create constellations of spacecraft that are easily adaptable to future missions.

Ted Carancho - Millennium Space Systems
Britt Christy - Millennium Space Systems
Jimmy Downs - Millennium Space Systems
Leonard Gibbs - Millennium Space Systems
Jeremy Blaire - Millennium Space Systems

Who We Are

Millennium Space Systems designs, manufactures, launches, and operates advanced spacecraft and constellations. The company was founded in 2001 to offer credible, low-cost alternatives for National Security Space, NASA, and commercial customers. We are a vertically integrated company that provides satellite platforms, products, and services. Millennium’s ALTAIR satellite is a groundbreaking, low-cost platform for low Earth orbit constellations. With delivery in as little as six months and prices starting at $500,000, ALTAIR CubeSats deliver true precision performance and power radical new missions and businesses. We can design, develop, manufacture, test, and operate your space system. We have proven competencies, processes, and facilities for mission formulation, space system development, manufacturing, integration, launch support, and in-orbit operations. When you need concept development, systems engineering, or a full order-to-orbit satellite build, we have the experience and capability to deliver creative, cost-effective solutions.


Figure 1. ALTAIR 6U Pathfinder Spacecraft


Our customer portfolio includes NASA, civil and national security customers, the Department of Defense, and commercial space sponsors. Complementing our core competence of developing and manufacturing satellites, we offer a full range of services to bring your mission from initial idea to orbiting reality:
• Space system and mission concept development
• Proposal and strategy development
• Mission and systems architecture, design, and concept of operations development
• Spacecraft concept through detailed design including analysis, modeling, simulation, software development, and verification testing
• Vertically integrated capabilities for component and subsystem development and fabrication
• Ground and flight software development
• Rapid prototyping and hardware-in-the-loop/software-in-the-loop test beds for risk reduction, assembly, integration, and test
• Payload integration and test
• System integration and test (functional and environmental), and design verification
• Launch base processing, pre- and post-launch operations
• Mission operations training, simulation, and vehicle check out and operations

The Millennium ALTAIR satellite platforms deliver top-of-the-line performance at entry-level prices. Designed for customization and rapid constellation production, ALTAIR is ready when you need it.

• 30 x 30 x 30 cm (27U CubeSat)
• 50 kg payload capacity
• Up to 90 W payload orbit average power
• 250 W peak payload power
• 20 arcsec pointing control
• 10 arcsec pointing knowledge


• 27 W payload orbit average power
• Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) parts program
• Payload interface customization
• Payload integration
• Thermal vacuum and vibration testing
• Six months from order to first orbit


Figure 2. ALTAIR Pathfinder 6U Integration and Test


How Are We Successful

Developing spacecraft is a difficult and expensive engineering effort, and can typically take five years or longer based on the complexity of its mission. Millennium Space Systems endeavors to take the latest Silicon Valley technology and infuse it into the aerospace industry to provide revolutionary capabilities. Instead of relying on aging, yet space proven, computing platforms and hardware components, we leverage the latest hardware and software COTS technologies such as those available at NI. By taking this approach we drastically reduce development time and cost.

We test each COTS component with the appropriate environmental tests to validate its survivability in space for the spacecraft’s mission and use modern software development approaches like Agile to iterate on solid, high-performance software solutions for space. Our customers can deploy space systems at a fraction of the cost and time of the traditional aerospace companies and can proceed with technology refreshes at a much faster pace. NI helps us take advantage of these COTS efficiencies for the ALTAIR spacecraft because of the company’s tight integration of the Single-Board RIO hardware with the LabVIEW Real-Time Module and the LabVIEW FPGA Module. Using a graphical language for both the real-time and FPGA development enables us to quickly take requirements, code them, test them, and debug in an intuitive environment. With the debugging tools in both LabVIEW Real-Time and LabVIEW FPGA, we solved problems at lighting speed with a relatively small number of developers.


Figure 3. ALTAIR Ground Interface Example


During integration and test (I&T) activities, we developed the ALTAIR Ground Interface to manually send commands to the spacecraft and view telemetry without having the full suite of mission operations software in operation. We based this application on LabVIEW and designed it with a plug-in interface that uses subpanels. This made it possible for each subsystem lead to design his/her front panel independently, and then integrate them into a single main panel for I&T activities.

How It Works

We composed the ALTAIR CubeSat from multiple subsystems. These subsystems include the Command and Data Handling (CDH) subsystem; Guidance and Navigation (GNC) subsystem; Electrical Power (EPS) subsystem; Telemetry, Tracking, and Control (TTC) subsystem; and Thermal Control (TCS) subsystem. The CDH subsystem deserializes/processes commands from either a ground station or commands stored locally on board through a script. It processes these commands and routes them to the appropriate subsystem, such as manual control command, to turn on a heater in the TCS subsystem. Additionally, it handles any telemetry that helps operators determine the state of health of the spacecraft. It collects telemetry from each subsystem and serializes the data for transmission to the ground through the TTC subsystem. The GNC subsystem maintains the spacecraft’s position and attitude during its orbit. It receives telemetry from various devices such as an inertial measurement unit, GPS, star tracker, or three-axis magnetometer. It can then use these sensor measurements, apply ALTAIR’s control law, and generate commands to actuators such as reaction wheels, torque rods, or propulsion to perform closed-loop control to meet ALTAIR’s highly precise pointing requirements. The EPS subsystem maintains the spacecraft’s bus power at its required level. It performs closed-loop control by measuring bus power and enabling/disabling solar array inputs to maintain ALTAIR’s desired power requirements. The TTC subsystem handles radio transmit and receive with various ground locations so operators can monitor the spacecraft’s state of health and each operator can send ground commands as necessary. The TCS subsystem maintains each zone at acceptable temperature levels with closed-loop control by measuring temperature with thermistors and enabling/disabling heaters.


Figure 4. Hardware-In-The-Loop Test Environment


The flight computer used in the CDH subsystem is an sbRIO-9651 SOM (System on Module). It contains a Xilinx Zynq All Programmable SoC with common components like memory, and provides a real-time processor and a reconfigurable FPGA. The real-time processor runs LabVIEW Real-Time and focuses on processing ground commands received from the TTC and routing them to the destination subsystem or device, reading telemetry from the FPGA, and stepping through the control algorithm to generate actuator commands that are sent to the FPGA. We created the FPGA logic with LabVIEW FPGA and used it to directly communicate with the sensors and actuators. The sensors and actuators generate the telemetry for delivery to the real-time code or receives commands for transmission to the actuators. The FPGA handles either high-speed digital I/O, RS232, RS485, I2C, or SPI communication depending on each device’s requirements. We use LabVIEW Real-Time to synchronize commands and telemetry in a tight control loop, which is well within the capabilities of the sbRIO-9651.

As part of the GNC subsystem, we developed a Star Tracker (STA) to aid in accurate determination of ALTAIR’s location and attitude. The STA generates a quaternion to describe the location and attitude and relies on the sbRIO-9651 for its processing power and interface to its integrated camera. Upon booting up, the FPGA can initially configure the camera to continually acquire images. These images are then processed in LabVIEW Real-Time by determining centroids and star identification. From this data, the system generates a quaternion and transmits it to the flight computer through its FPGA RS485 driver.


Figure 5. Millennium Space Systems Star Tracker


What’s Next?

Our first deployment of ALTAIR is our ALTAIR Pathfinder vehicle, which took less than 12 months from program inception to final ship date. We designed it to demonstrate ALTAIR’s advanced avionics, guidance and control, additive manufacturing, power systems, RF communications, and onboard processing technologies. ALTAIR Pathfinder will be launched on an International Space Station resupply mission, currently manifest in April 2017. Once on board, it will be released within 30 to 60 days. Millennium Space Systems is on schedule to deliver 22 ALTAIR spacecraft for our customers in fiscal year 2018. We are definitely busy for the near future and look forward to continual innovations utilizing NI products and other COTS items.

Author Information:
Ted Carancho
Millennium Space Systems

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