Triumphant Performance: NASA’s PACE Spacecraft Aces the Ultimate Space Simulation

The PACE spacecraft has successfully completed a crucial month-long thermal test at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, marking a significant milestone on its path to a planned launch in January 2024. This test, often referred to as the “mother of all tests,” involved subjecting the PACE spacecraft (Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem) to extreme temperatures and pressures within a specialized chamber at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The primary objective was to assess the satellite’s performance under conditions it will encounter in space.

Craig Stevens, the spacecraft systems lead, emphasized the importance of this test, stating, “This is the best way to simulate what PACE will experience in space. Space is a vacuum, and the observatory is exposed to extreme temperatures. We must make sure PACE is ready for that environment.”

Following months of intensive preparations, round-the-clock shifts, and stringent protocols, the PACE mission successfully concluded its environmental testing in August, bringing it one step closer to its scheduled launch in early January 2024. Mark Voyton, the mission project manager, noted the significance of completing the thermal vacuum test (TVAC), stating, “This proves the PACE observatory can withstand the rigorous thermal environment once it is launched and inserted into its operational environment. Completing the TVAC test is extremely significant, as it represents the last environmental test in our six-month environmental test campaign.”

Achieving this final test presented a challenge to the team due to the time and resources required for TVAC testing. Prior to commencing the test, the satellite was placed in the thermal chamber at NASA Goddard for setup in June. Each team involved in the PACE project verified the functionality of their respective components within the observatory before the testing chamber’s closure. Daniel Powers, PACE’s thermal product development lead, emphasized the meticulous preparations, with control room members on standby to ensure the seamless initiation of thermal testing.

The official testing phase within the chamber spanned approximately 33 days and subjected the spacecraft to extreme temperature conditions. Powers explained, “This is the final verification that everything is working on the spacecraft as expected. We take it to temperature extremes as well. By subjecting it to the anticipated extreme environments of orbit, we can confirm that everything is properly set up and designed from a thermal perspective.”

The dedicated team operated in three shifts, covering every hour of the day, for the entire duration of the test to ensure adherence to a strict timetable. Powers aptly described the teamwork involved as a “full marching army” with an all-hands-on-deck approach.

With the completion of the TVAC test, PACE now has two more tests at ambient temperature and pressure, marking the conclusion of the observatory’s post-environmental testing phase. The team will subsequently shift their focus to preparing the spacecraft for its journey to Florida and eventual launch from the launchpad.

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