The Miniature Seeker Technology Integration (MSTI) satellite, JPL's first foray into the "faster, better, cheaper" spacecraft development concept, has proven to be more successful and proficient than expected.
MSTI was built by JPL for the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) as a testbed for infrared sensors. The satellite was launched on Nov. 21, 1992 from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base.
MSTI is JPL's first low-cost, rapid development satellite and it was completed in less than a year, on time and under budget.
"We did MSTI for $15 million and we did it on schedule," said E. Kane Casani, former MSTI project manager and now manager of the Implementation Development Office within the JPL Office of Flight Projects.
"We expected the mission to last about four or six days," said Bob Metzger, JPL's MSTI project manager, "but three months after launch, the satellite was still collecting about 2,000 infrared images a day."
Shortly after launch, two stabilizing thrusters became contaminated and ground controllers put the satellite into a gentle roll. The solar panel is always pointed toward the sun and as MSTI rotates, the camera is either pointed toward space or at Earth.
"We can't control changes to the attitude and orientation of the satellite, but we do control the operating characteristics of the system," Metzger said, "The spacecraft has produced a wealth of scientific data which have been processed by JPL's image processing facility. We have met and exceeded the original objectives of the mission."
The MSTI satellite is an octagon structure which is 123 centimeters (48 inches) high, 97 centimeters (38 inches) in diameter and weighs approximately 168 kilograms (370 pounds). MSTI was launched into a Sun synchronous polar orbit with an inclination of 97 degrees. During the primary mission, the payload, which consists of an infrared sensor assembly, mirror and drive system, scanned the Earth to obtain background information to evaluate target and background signature data for future MSTI flights.
The camera has imaged distinct land mass features on the Baja California peninsula, various cloud cover patterns and has detected the firing of a solid-rocket motor at the U.S. Air Force Phillips Laboratory at California's Edwards Air Force Base. The detection of the rocket firing was part of a demonstration to test the feasibility of detecting and tracking missiles using miniature sensors in space.
JPL is currently producing sophisticated images from the infrared data which include thermal land and cloud cover maps and three dimensional perspective views of selected targets. Simulated video flights over certain areas are also being produced using techniques that were developed by JPL's planetary missions.
"MSTI is proof of low-cost rapid development, but many people don't believe we did so much, so quick and for so little," Casani said. "Perhaps we made a mistake by doing the first one so well," he mused.
JPL continues to be involved with the MSTI image processing which should be completed in late April. Sometime after that, the satellite's orbit will have decayed and it is expected to reenter the atmosphere and burn up.
"We now know we can do these lower-cost, rapid-development projects," Metzger said "and we can now apply what we've learned to future missions. We've developed the methodology that should carry JPL spacecraft design into the 21st century."
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