KODIAK - The Kodiak Launch Complex has its first launch in almost two years Nov. 19, and it's a new type of launch.
Instead of the missile defense-related work the complex has done over the last decade, the new launch is for the military's Space Test Program and will bring 16 experiments into low earth orbit.
The experiments range from high-priority military projects to NASA technology trials and experiments built by college undergraduates. They investigate subjects including electronics, space weather, navigation and biology. But a common thread throughout the mission is projects that are small and inexpensive by aerospace standards.
The mission's name, STP-S26, comes from the fact that it is the 26th launch carried out by the Space Test Program and contains small satellites.
Mission manger Air Force Capt. Rachel Derbis said the Kodiak launch is the most complex mission the Space Test Program has attempted in 20 years - in part because it packs in so many small payloads.
"It is our hope that these experiments will prove out the rapid access to space for small satellites and push forward the frontiers of space," she said. "In essence, accomplishing more with smaller satellites is the true meaning of maximizing access to space."
Among the seven satellites carrying the experiments on the Kodiak launch, four are about 400 pounds and three weigh less than 10 pounds.
In addition to making satellites small, some of the organizations with experiments on board used standardized satellite forms like the blocky CubeSat to help keep costs down.
One especially small experiment on the mission is a CubeSat called NanoSail D that is smaller than a loaf of bread before launching and costs $250,000.
It is part of a larger NASA satellite with an $8 million to $12 million budget, not including experiments.
Although NASA has access to the International Space Station for space experiments, missions like STP-S26 are still useful for the space agency, said Mark Boudreau, project manager at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and the manager of one of the satellites on the STP-S26 mission.
"Launch vehicles and services (rockets or shuttles), as we all know, are expensive," he said. "Sometimes it can take years to get even the smallest scientific or technology experiment manifested for flight. That means delaying the return of scientific knowledge."
In addition to NASA and the military, the University of Texas at Austin and the National Science Foundation have satellites on the STP-S26. Here's a look at all of the satellites.
Primary Satellite: The mission's primary satellite carries a pair of experiments off the military's Space Experiment Review Board (SERB) list.
One experiment, the top-ranked priority from 2006, will test how well military electronics function in space. The other experiment is an ocean telemetry link, a project to relay information from ocean buoys.
FastSat: The larger of two NASA satellites, FastSat carries a set of three instruments to measure space weather, including the temperature at the top of earth's atmosphere and astrophysical plasma.
Also on board the FastSat is the tiny $250,000 satellite, the NanoSail D. The satellite's mission is to unfurl into a thin sheet that uses sunlight to leave the earth's orbit. If successful, the technology could one day be used to keep abandoned satellites out of earth's orbit where they might damage other satellites.
OREOS: The second NASA satellites launch is a separate set of three CubeSats that will study how micro-organisms survive in space.
FastTrac: The FastTrac satellite is the winner of a biannual contest between American universities sponsored by the Air Force. This winning satellite on this mission will breaks into two satellites, which then communicate with each other. It was built by the University of Texas at Austin.
FalconSat-5: Another student project, the FalconSat-5 was built by cadets at the U.S. Air Force academy in Colorado Springs. The satellite handles a pair of SERB priorities related to space communication and navigation.
Radio Aurora eXplorer: This National Science Foundation satellite is also a CubeSat, and also like the FastSat will study astrophysical plasma to understand patterns that can disrupt communications.
Ballasts: The mission is also a test for the Minotaur IV rocket that will take the payloads into space.
Kodiak's launch will be the third Minotaur IV launch ever conducted. It will also be the first to test whether the rocket can drop payloads at multiple elevations. After deploying its other experiments to a 650-kilometer elevation orbit at 72 degrees inclination, the rocket will continue to 1,150 kilometers to release ballast.
The Kodiak launch is scheduled for 4:24 p.m. on Nov. 19.