How to Build a Research Satellite
ICON Assembly and Testing
It’s about a year until ICON launches, and all teams—science, instruments, mission operations and modeling teams—are moving forward with laser focus. There is little time to rest when so much goes into making a NASA satellite ready for launch in June 2017. Systems need to be tested to ensure they can download and process the data that ICON will be generating nearly continuously, orbit after orbit, in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Current data processing testing is making use of the data that the flight instruments are already producing as they undergo ground testing—it's a great way to see how everything's flowing through the data pipeline. In fact, the mission and instrument operations teams worked together recently to perform a “day in the life” test with the instruments, where they ran them through a 24 hour long sequence of commands, to simulate what they will do over a full day's worth of orbits.
Assembled! The ICON payload.
The payload inside the cleanroom at Space Dynamics Lab in Utah, after the instruments have been integrated, and prior to its environmental testing.
This is all possible because the science payload of instruments is completely assembled. All four instruments—EUV, FUV, IVM, MIGHTI—as well as the ICP (the "brain") have been finished up at their various institutions—UCB, UT Dallas, and NRL—and shipped to Space Dynamics Lab (SDL) in Utah, where they have been incorporated into what's called the science payload, or just the Payload. This assembly is a big deal—the instruments are securely attached to their final place on the Payload Integration Plate, or PIP, connected to all the data and power cables called harnesses, and swaddled with thin blankets to protect them from the large temperature swings that happen every orbit. Now the entire PIP, with instruments attached, is undergoing intensive testing for the rest of the summer to make sure it can handle the intense vibrations of launch and the extreme temperature changes in space. The good news is that instruments are functioning perfectly, giving the instrument teams opportunity to operate the instruments just like they will when the spacecraft is orbiting Earth.
The next big goal is to send the payload to Orbital ATK in Virginia in August, where it will be integrated with the spacecraft to create the full ICON observatory. And then, like the science payload, it will be ready for yet another battery of tests to get it ready for space.