Shooting for the stars: Engineers
help develop miniature satellite © Oct. 29, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications

The May 19, 2009, launch of the Minotaur I on Wallops Island, Va., carried a CubeSat designed by students at California Polytechnic State University along with its normal payload. Norwich students are working toward a test launch in 2012.

Photo courtesy of CubeSatThe May 19, 2009, launch of the Minotaur I on Wallops Island, Va., carried a CubeSat designed by students at California Polytechnic State University along with its normal payload. Norwich students are working toward a test launch in 2012.

Good things come in small packages and so, increasingly, does technology.

So it is that three Norwich University students are involved in a senior-thesis project to improve the effectiveness of “CubeSats,” miniature satellites that have demonstrated great promise in space research.

Cube-shaped and about the size of a softball, the first CubeSat was designed about a decade ago by engineers at California Polytechnic State and Stanford universities. The satellites were put into production several years later, and have been sent into orbit to record data with varying degrees of success.

Because they are small, CubeSats can be launched at much-reduced costs, which has made them popular among scientists in academic and corporate worlds. Their size allows them to be jettisoned into space after traveling aboard a space shuttle or a rocket carrying a larger, more traditional satellite.

A self-correcting CubeSat would negate the need to have the satellite tracked and directed by instruments and technicians
from earth.

Still, there is much to be learned about CubeSats. Enter the team of Norwich students: mechanical engineering majors Matt Wagner and Robert Martin, and Chakrit Chantamit, who is studying electrical and computer engineering. The three are working with teams of other students from the nearby University of Vermont [UVM] and Vermont Technical College [VTC].

The project, which has the ultimate goal of sending a self-propelled, triple-length CubeSat to the moon in six years, is funded largely from a grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA]. The money was funneled through the Vermont Space Grant Consortium, one of many academic groups that NASA has encouraged to promote aerospace research.

“NASA tries to get universities to work together to help advance NASA’s agenda,” said Carl Brandon, professor of science and aeronautical studies at VTC, who founded the consortium and helped secure a $195,000 NASA grant to fund the Vermont project.

Brandon said this CubeSat project has been broken down into three aspects so student teams at each school will have a distinct research goal. The UVM team is mapping out the best possible flight paths to the moon; VTC students will be assembling the CubeSat, itself, including propulsion components; and the Norwich researchers will work on the hardware and software for the satellite’s navigation system.

An image of the triple CubeSat with fold-out photovotaic cells. It is being designed with the help of Norwich students who are working on the guidance system.

Image courtesy of Carl BrandonAn image of the triple CubeSat with fold-out photovotaic cells. It is being designed with the help of Norwich students who are working on the guidance system.

The celestial navigation system will include a tiny camera to photograph the heavens—the moon, sun and stars—and a computer to record that information and interpret it. With celestial landmarks recorded and the camera continuing to take photographs while in space, the CubeSat will change directions with thrusters to remain on a predetermined path. The Norwich team hopes that after a functioning navigation system has been developed, a grouping of three conjoined CubeSats might someday be assembled and sent to the moon.

Researchers say a CubeSat with navigational autonomy will further cut costs. A self-correcting satellite would negate the need for tracking and direction by instruments and technicians from earth.

Jacques Beneat, a Norwich electrical and computer engineering professor and a mentor of the project, said NASA’s ultimate goal is to use autonomous spacecraft to ferry materials to the moon for building a space station. CubeSat projects lay the groundwork for this.

Efficient as they are, one CubeSat can’t carry all the necessary technological components, plus a propulsion system, said Danner Friend, a mechanical engineering professor who is also an advisor on the project. Three connected CubeSats will be needed.

Each Norwich student has been given a special assignment in this initial phase. Wagner is working to develop a platform that will hold the satellite camera; Martin is researching camera technology; and Chantamit is studying software options.

Wagner, 21, of York, Maine, reported that he and his Norwich colleagues spend about 10 hours a week on the project. “We have done a lot of research on navigation software; we have read much about space-flight theory, and now we are trying to translate all this into something practical.

“We don’t yet have the camera, but hopefully we will have it by the beginning of next semester,” he added. Another challenge, said Wagner, will be “finding a camera that is small enough to fit on the satellite and technologically advanced enough to run on limited solar power.”

He said the team needs a camera that can be modified. “We do not want to design a camera specifically for this trip.”

When Wagner mentions “this trip,” he’s referring to a test orbit of earth scheduled for 2012 to test the navigation system. Whether a full-fledged trip to the moon with CubeSats will ever occur will likely depend on the success of their earth-orbit experiment.

Beneat called this initial phase a “great adventure,” that will hopefully lay the foundation for the expansion of aerospace studies at Norwich. It has been a learning process for everyone, he said, as this is a very complex task.

“It’s really challenging,” said Beneat. “...If we can get this project to succeed, it would attract a lot of students to Norwich.”