UAF launches first student-made satellite

Katie Stark / Sun Star

The Alaska Space Grant Program, based out of UAF, launched a satellite on Oct. 8 into orbit around the earth from Edwards Air Force Base in California. The satellite, which was built for NASA entirely by engineering and science students, has not yet turned on or contacted the lab.

“It is not uncommon for a satellite to hang out for a couple of months before it decides to turn on,” Denise Thorsen, Alaska Space Grant (ASGP) director, said.

The satellite is a small box, roughly 5 by 5 inches, also known as a CubeSat. In addition to being an educational experience for students, the CubeSat’s primary purpose is to monitor the

ARC-1, the miniature satellite designed and built by engineering students Jesse Frey (left), Morgan Johnson (center) and Patrick Wade as part of the Alaska Space Grant Program, was launched into orbit on October 7, 2015 on NASA's NROL-55 mission. Photo Courtesy of Todd Paris

ARC-1, the miniature satellite designed and built by engineering students Jesse Frey (left), Morgan Johnson (center) and Patrick Wade as part of the Alaska Space Grant Program, was launched into orbit on October 7, 2015 on NASA’s NROL-55 mission. Photo Courtesy of Todd Paris

stress spacecraft are put under during their journey into space, according to Thorsen.

“The main mission of our satellite was to, in fact, measure that environment,” Thorsen said, “how hot does it get during launch? How much shaking around happens during launch?”

During launch, the CubeSat was placed in a larger box that contained 13 satellites, each built by a different university. This box was then attached to a rocket that took it to space.

The entire project took five years from start to finish, with the students planning, designing and building the satellite themselves. Thirty-six students, mostly undergraduates, worked on the project.

The overall cost of the entire project was between $100 and $150 thousand. Only $10 to 15 thousand of that money was used in the actual construction of the satellite. The rest of the money went towards paying the students involved in the project.

Students who work in the Space Grant lab start on a payroll of $11 an hour, which can go up to $15 by the time they become better established in the program, according to Thorsen.

Working in the ASGP lab is a rewarding and educational experience, according to graduate engineering student and co project leader Jessie Frey.

“I enjoy the struggles of getting something to work and designing new things, and building stuff in general,” Frey said. “Then to see it all go off in a giant, bright ball of fire was pretty cool too.”

ASGP works collaboratively with NASA, which recommends projects like the CubeSat to the students. This provides the students with a range of projects to choose from, though Thorsen has the final decision of what the students actually do.

Many at ASGP have faith that their satellite will turn on and make contact with them.

“We’re fairly confident actually that it will eventually turn on, because the way we designed it there’s not a whole lot that could go wrong.” Thorsen said.

Even if the satellite, which will be in orbit for one year, never turned on, the project would not be considered a failure, according to Thorsen.

“It is a huge feat to design it, test it, build it, make sure everything works, put it all together, make sure everything’s together, and have it ready for delivery,” Thorson said.

ASGP is already looking to the future. Thorsen said that they have plans to build another satellite, and are working on the proposal to fund it. One idea is for the students to enter NASA’s CubeQuest competition, a competition where they would have to design a satellite and get it into orbit around the moon.

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