GRAND FORKS — SpaceX has launched a number of satellites into low-Earth orbit, some of which have research and development ties to Grand Forks’ Grand Sky Technology Park.
The SpaceX rocket, called Falcon 9, launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 2:31 p.m. Central time on Wednesday, June 30. The company partnered with the U.S. Space Development Agency to carry satellites designed to create an orbital network to transmit data to other satellites, and unmanned aerial vehicles such as the MQ-9 Reaper, used by the North Dakota Air National Guard in Fargo. Two of the satellites were designed by General Atomics, an anchor tenant at Grand Sky. The satellites will eventually be controlled from Grand Forks Air Force Base.
“This is how we stay ahead of our peers, our adversaries like Russia and China,” Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said Tuesday, June 29, the date of the originally scheduled launch. “It's because SDA is moving fast, and getting this technology deployed and getting it done before our adversaries do it.”
The Tuesday launch was scrubbed after an errant helicopter unexpectedly entered the perimeter around the site, seconds before it was set to take place.
“We were down to T-minus 11 seconds before it was scrubbed,” said Gary Henry, a senior director at SpaceX. “Essentially what happens is when unauthorized aircraft enter the restricted area that enables a safe, if you will, launch, the range is obligated at that point to go from ‘green’ to ‘red’.”
Space Development Agency Director Derek Tournear said the rocket carried 88 satellites in total, five of which are the first rollout of what will become a global network of 400. The satellites will make use of laser communication technology to transmit data to and from other satellites, and unmanned aerial vehicles. Lasers, Tournear said, will provide an “unjammable” communications network to be used by each branch of the military.
“All of that ties together to get us tactical data directly into theater at the speed that the warfighters need it,” Tournear said.
Additional launches are expected to happen every two years until the network is completed in 2026. After that, when the satellites have reached the end of their five-year lifespan they will be “deorbited,” meaning they will be pushed toward the Earth’s atmosphere where they will be incinerated.
Tournear said General Atomics will have a demonstration next spring on how the MQ-9 Reaper drone interacts with the satellites.
Hoeven and Tournear visited Grand Forks in May to announce a $6 million grant to General Atomics to implement the mission to link the satellites to North Dakota Air National Guard drones. At that time, Hoeven said he was working to secure funding for a new space networking center in Grand Forks that will tie into the low-Earth orbit mission.
“Today’s launch is an exciting milestone that takes our nation to the next chapter in the race in space," Hoeven said. "America needs to win this race once again, and these satellites will help ensure Grand Forks will play a big role in this essential national security effort."