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True Anomaly CEO finds silver lining in startup’s unusual first mission

True Anomaly’s first mission didn’t go as planned, but Even Rogers, the space and defense startup’s CEO, said he doesn’t consider it a failure. He provides new details about what went right and wrong, explaining how they turned this anomaly into a “success story.”

While the company has yet to determine the final cause of the issues that ended the mission, the timeline of events could provide insight into how the space startup responded to the ongoing anomaly.

The company launched its first two satellites on SpaceX’s Transporter-10 rideshare mission on March 4. The two satellites, which the company calls Jackals, are designed to maneuver close to other objects, capturing high-resolution images and videos of them using optical and radar sensors. The first mission, Mission X, is designed to demonstrate these capabilities in orbit for the first time.

The two spacecraft deployed from the rocket as expected, but the company began to run into problems that day: Mission controllers expected to communicate with each spacecraft within three hours of deployment, but they saw no communication from the first spacecraft (designated Jackal 2), and first contact with Jackal 1 was only partially successful.

The telemetry packets they received from Jackal 1 were positive: The spacecraft’s array was receiving voltages, and the data showed it was in the correct position relative to the sun. However, mission controllers were unable to upload the data, and subsequent nighttime contact attempts by both vehicles failed.

This is a sign of things to come. But Rogers insisted it was a mistake to call the mission a failure.

“The approach at Mission It’s not considered a flight test failure – like when SpaceX blew up the rocket and everyone cheered.

“If you don’t learn, then it’s just a failure – if you don’t give 100 percent and you’re not responsible for the design itself and the changes to the design to improve it, then it’s just a failure.”

Timeline of events

The next day, True Anomaly engineers worked with other rideshare passengers and external space domain awareness providers to ensure they were tracking the correct satellites.

This is harder than it sounds: In ride-sharing missions, where dozens of passenger spacecraft are deployed in rapid succession, it can be extremely difficult to actually determine which satellites belong to whom. Communications networks such as high-latitude ground stations and ViaSat’s geostationary satellites are also becoming congested as operators rush to provide service.

The company received photos of Jackal 2 on March 7 from an unnamed off-Earth imagery provider that confirmed it had also deployed solar panels and positioned itself correctly; photos of Jackal 1 followed the next day. Mission controllers initiated additional ground station integration on March 9, ultimately confirming the orbital status of both satellites six days after launch. But Jackal 2 has remained silent, and they have been unable to establish further contact with Jackal 1.

Engineers continued to work; throughout the mission, they added functionality to the internal command and control software platform Mosaic and continued to send commands to the two jackals. Ultimately, the company announced on March 21 that the team was unable to verify that Jackal was still working properly or any information about its status.

Rogers explains that root cause analysis can take some time, but that’s especially true when you don’t have a lot of data to work with.

“What we know for sure is that when we received the latest batch of information about its status, the spacecraft’s solar panels were deployed and it was pointing toward the sun,” he said. “The startup sequence was at least partially nominal… We just couldn’t communicate.”

Still, he said he believed it was not just a radio issue but “probably an upstream communications issue.”

“Fly, fix, fly”

True Anomaly’s first mission got a lot of attention.The company has attracted widespread attention since its inception it popped up a year ago Its ambitious plan is to build intelligence-gathering tracking satellites to enhance national security and protect U.S. assets from adversaries in orbit.True exception is closed US$100 million in Series B financing Those plans were accelerated last year.

True Anomaly’s four co-founders titled the blog post announcing the mission’s results “Fly, Fix, Fly,” a direct reference to the company’s focus on rapid design cycles. With this in mind, engineers made some modifications to Jackal and Mosaic before the second mission, but regardless of the outcome of Mission X, some modifications will be introduced.

One of the most significant changes is in the satellite design: The next generation of Jackals will weigh 100 pounds less, a design modification that improves maneuverability and increases payload capacity. The company is also upgrading the satellite’s power architecture and improving ground testing infrastructure. They also changed how the flight software weighs multiple “out-of-limit inputs” — signals that signal something is wrong — relative to each other.

By all accounts, the results of the X mission haven’t slowed the company down: True Anomaly is planning at least two more flights over the next 12 months.

“The success story of the Jackal X mission is twofold,” Rogers said. “First, the various partners and other members of the Transporter-10 mission came together to help each other. The second is that our team responded very quickly and iterated very quickly.”

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