Undergrads Build and Set Course for Space Satellite
Project Offers Hands-On Engineering Experience Before Expected Launch in 2012
Feb. 16, 2009
Undergraduate physics students are engaged in a sort of “space race” to design and build an actual satellite that will study how the Earth’s ionosphere swells during the day and contracts at night.
Under the guidance of Dr. Gregory Earle, professor of physics at the UT Dallas William B. Hanson Center for Space Sciences, a dozen undergraduates signed on for a course (PHYS 4V10) to design a very small spacecraft, called a pico-satellite, which isn’t much larger than a sleeve of soup crackers.
Universities in Space
Undergraduates at other universities are also working to get satellites in orbit:
“The National Science Foundation (NSF) prioritizes undergraduate involvement in their projects,” Earle said. “Our students will achieve some real scientific results with this satellite. Pico-satellite projects represent a major revolution in space science, and these undergraduates are getting hands-on experience in space science in an environment that very closely mirrors how they’ll work once they leave UT Dallas.”
Though modest in size, the CubeSat kit satellite will measure ion temperature and ion density of oxygen, hydrogen and helium above the Earth’s surface at an altitude of 500 km to 800 km (roughly 300 to 500 miles above Earth). Earle expects the satellite to orbit for up to one year, with a possible launch date in 2012. NSF makes competitive funding available for such experiments.
“This is only my second year in college, so I was very excited to be able to work on what I thought of as a ‘real’ project so early,” said Jessica Hawkins, a double major in computer science and physics. “We knew we were designing something that could actually be built and sent into space.”
Hawkins, who took the course last fall, has returned to take the course again and see the satellite develop even further. She researched the systems already implemented on other CubeSats and studied the optimal overall system, or “package,” that would accommodate the small satellite’s power, mass and size constraints while meeting the objectives of the mission.
The students divide themselves into one of several teams, including:
- Attitude determination and control.
- Mechanical structures.
- Flight computer.
Senior Electrical Engineering major Saurav Dhar is back for more, as well, having spent a previous semester working on a design for the spacecraft’s solar power system.
“This opportunity means a lot to me,” Dhar said. “I have always wanted to work on space-based systems. And because I want to work on spacecraft engineering for my graduate studies, this is the best experience I could have had as an undergraduate.”
Earle’s students work on satellite designs in the new Validation and Integration of CUBESAT Instruments, or VICI Lab. The name was selected as a hopeful homage to the Latin word “Vici,” meaning conquered. Executive Vice President and Provost Dr. Hobson Wildenthal made funding available for the innovative space.
The lab includes two computer workstations with sophisticated software students use to plan and simulate their satellite design and monitor its projected orbit around the Earth.
“These students are confronted with the very questions that confront all space scientists when designing a satellite for launch,” Earle said. “Will the satellite be allowed to spin while it orbits the Earth, or should it stay fixed in one position? You have to think about that, and then you can figure out where your antenna needs to be. How much payload can it hold? How much power does it need? Each decision one team makes affects another team on the project. The science questions are real, and teamwork is crucial.”