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DoD experiments launch aboard Space Shuttle Discovery

Space Shuttle Discovery leaps toward the sky Dec. 9 from Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center, Fla.  This is Discovery's 33rd mission and the first night launch since 2003.  The shuttle is scheduled to return Dec. 21.  (NASA photo/Jim Grossmann)

Space Shuttle Discovery leaps toward the sky Dec. 9 from Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center, Fla. This is Discovery's 33rd mission and the first night launch since 2003. The shuttle is scheduled to return Dec. 21. (NASA photo/Jim Grossmann)

Kirtland Air Force Base -- When the Space Shuttle Discovery lifted off Dec. 9, 2006 from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center, Fla., it was carrying 1,350 pounds of Department of Defense payloads. 

The DoD Space Test Program-sponsored experiments will test a number of new technologies to enhance the United States space capabilities, ultimately giving the edge to tomorrow's warfighters. 

At 8:47 p.m., Cape Canaveral's dark sky turned to daylight when Discovery's solid rocket boosters and main engines ignited for the first shuttle night launch since November 2002. Three million pounds of thrust accelerated the shuttle and its cargo to 17,500 mph towards the orbiting outpost, the International Space Station, 180 nautical miles above Earth's surface. The Space Shuttle mission STS-116 and crew of seven was led by former Air Force test pilot astronaut Mark Polansky. 

Once docked to the ISS, astronaut Joan Higgenbotham transferred two DoD experiments from the shuttle to the ISS to conduct science in the one-of-a-kind, zero-G lab. After Discovery undocked from the ISS, Ms. Higgenbotham deployed three DoD experiments into space from the shuttle cargobay. STS-116 also hosted two additional DoD experiments that utilize ground- and space-based sensors to collect data from the shuttle throughout the course of the shuttle mission. 

The two DoD payloads that STS-116 brought to the ISS are the Elastic Memory Composite Hinge experiment, sponsored by the Air Force Research Lab and the Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Re-orient Experimental Satellites, sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. 

EMCH will test a revolutionary composite material to replace bulky, heavy-weight materials and systems currently in use. EMCH can reduce the mass of conventional mechanisms by 90 percent and provide a low-shock method to deploy antennas and solar arrays. With launch costs at $10,000 per pound, EMCH intends to drive down the weight of space vehicles to save DoD costs and increase payload capacity. 

The SPHERES experiment consists of three bowling-ball sized satellites that will free-fly inside the ISS. They're equipped with a cold gas propulsion system for maneuverability, and they communicate with each other using radio and ultrasonic frequencies. The satellites will test autonomous formation flying, rendezvous and docking techniques.
The three deployments from the shuttle cargobay were the Atmospheric Neutral Density Experiment, the Micro-ElectroMechanical Systems based PicoSat Inspector and the Radar Fence Transponder. 

ANDE is sponsored by the Naval Research Lab and consists of two near-perfect spheres measuring 19 inches and 17-1/2 inches in diameters. The spheres will measure the drag at low earth orbit, as current atmospheric models possess a 15-20 percent error in drag. Reducing this error will improve orbit predictions for satellites which constantly consume propellant to counter the effects of drag. Understanding drag better will improve space operations and will provide a dramatic increase in fidelity to current atmospheric models. 

MEPSI is sponsored by the Space and Missile Systems Center developmental planning directorate. MEPSI consists of two cubes, measuring 4x4x5 inches each and are tethered together with a 15-foot lanyard. These tiny spacecraft are called picosatellites. MEPSI contains propulsion systems and cameras and the two picosats will maneuver around and photograph each other. The purpose is to demonstrate a low-cost, self-inspection capability. As a future application, one of these picosats could be mounted on a host satellite as an onboard inspection capability. In the event of an anomaly, the host satellite will activate the picosat inspector which will downlink images of the troubled host satellite to aid space operators in troubleshooting. These tiny low-cost picosats could potentially save the life of a high dollar next-generation DoD satellite. 

RAFT is sponsored by the U.S. Naval Academy and consists of two cubes measuring 5x5x5 inches. These are also called picosats but they serve a different purpose than MEPSI. RAFT will calibrate the US Space Surveillance Network's radar fence. As one RAFT picosat flies through the radar fence, it will transmit its location. When the second picosat flies through the radar fence, it exercises the radar fence's locating capability. This effort will improve the SSN's ability to track small Resident Space Objects. RAFT also contains an amateur radio onboard and the midshipmen at the Naval Academy will communicate with the space borne picosats from the Yard Patrol ships in Annapolis, Maryland. Exposing military members to space operations early in their careers is an invaluable investment in the DoD's future space professionals. 

"The success of the three deploys, and seemingly endless hurdles overcome, reflects over two years of hard work, dedication and ingenuity by a small team at Johnson Space Center and closes the book on the most complex DoD shuttle mission in well over a decade," stated Maj. Matt Budde, Chief of Integration and Operations for the DoD Human Spaceflight Payloads Office. 

STP is the spaceflight benefactor of the host of experiments from various DoD agencies. The DoD Space Test Program is managed by SMC's Space Development and Test Wing. 

Since the inception of the space shuttle program, STP has been imagining ways to incorporate new technologies onto this unique vehicle. These experiments provide the technologies for the future of military space. An example is STP's launch of an atomic clock in the 1960s and that experiment evolved into today's DoD Global Positioning System.