HOUSTON – NASA is in talks with the Italian space agency to fly an Earth science instrument originally planned to go on a commercial small satellite.
At a meeting of the Earth Science Advisory Committee on August 2, Greg Stover, program manager for NASA’s Earth System Pathfinder Program, said that NASA was in talks with the Italian Space Agency (ASI) about flying the Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols (MAIA). instrument on a future Italian satellite.
“We are working with the Italians to find an access to space for the Multi-Angle Imager to be able to launch it in the next couple of years,” he said. “We are working on international agreements right now to do that.”
Karen St. Germain, director of NASA’s Earth Sciences Division, added that NASA and ASI had not yet finalized the agreement. – This is an active discussion. We have signed agreements to take the next steps. However, it is not a done deal, but it is promising.”
MAIA is designed to study particulate air pollution in urban areas and help researchers understand their effects on human health. The mission is intended to operate in a polar orbit at an altitude of 740 kilometers.
MAIA was originally planned to fly on General Atomics’ Orbital Test Bed (OTB) 2 spacecraft. The agency awarded a $38.5 million contract to General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS) in 2018 to host MAIA on the OTB-2 spacecraft. General Atomics was responsible for the launch of the satellite, and in February 2021 it awarded a contract to Firefly Aerospace for a launch on Firefly’s Alpha rocket.
Stover said “we had to stop pursuing” a flight with MAIA, but did not disclose why. NASA had not publicly announced that it had terminated the contract with General Atomics. “The MAIA instrument will operate on a host satellite, to be selected by NASA at a future date,” the mission’s website currently states.
“NASA and General Atomics mutually agreed to end the MAIA Hosting contractual relationship in late 2021 due to overall technical alignment and programmatic challenges,” NASA spokesperson Jacob Richmond said on August 5. “We have been actively pursuing several avenues, including exploring a collaboration with the Italian space agency.”
He added that Charles Webb, then assistant director of flight programs in the Earth Sciences Division, informed the scientific community of a potential delay in the launch of MAIA at the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting in January. At the time, however, the delay appeared to be linked to problems at Firefly Aerospace, whose largest shareholder, Noosphere Venture Partners, divested its stake at the request of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.
“General Atomics is no longer hosting the MAIA instrument, as a result of a mutual decision between General Atomics and NASA,” Gregg Burgess, vice president of GA-EMS Space Systems, said in an Aug. 5 statement. “Leftover hardware and software from that OTB spacecraft are being reused for use on other General Atomics spacecraft.”
General Atomics entered the smallsat industry through the acquisition of the manufacturers Miltec in 2016 and the American subsidiary of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. in 2017. The company has won several orders from NASA as well as the US Space Force, the Space Development Agency (SDA) and DARPA for smallsat missions.
However, OTB-2 is not the only General Atomics smallsat program to have problems. SDA’s Laser Interconnect and Networking Communications System (LINCS) mission featured two cube sets developed by General Atomics to test laser intersatellite links. However, the satellites fell after deployment on the SpaceX Transporter-2 rideshare mission last June and failed to complete the mission. Burgess, speaking in February, blamed the failure on “a problem with the launch vehicle” but did not elaborate.
General Atomics has also encountered problems developing the Total and Spectral solar Irradiance Sensor-2 (TSIS-2) spacecraft for NASA under a $32.9 million contract awarded in 2020. The company won the contract by offering its OTB bus to a price of 40% below the Southwest Research Institute, the other bidder.
In a separate presentation at the Aug. 2 Earth Science Advisory Committee meeting, Kathleen Boggs, acting assistant director for flight programs in the Earth Science division, said there had been “challenges” in the development of TSIS-2, noting unspecified problems identified of the mission’s standing audit board.
“It’s a new vendor, new to the aerospace arena, so we felt this was a good opportunity to help an emerging space company,” she said. “We spent a little more time with them. Goddard [Space Flight Center] helped work through their planning challenges. They now have what we think is a good schedule and are getting ready for mission CDR,” or critical design review, now scheduled for September.