UAF to Launch Satellite Into Final Frontier

By Kelsey Gobroski

Sun Star Contributor

The UAF Space Systems Engineering Program (SSEP) is assembling a team and a satellite while waiting for confirmation about when, where, and whether they can send the satellite into low-earth orbit. Through the CubeSat Launch Initiative, NASA offered a small amount of rocket space to 12 educational institutions for short-term research satellites. The Alaska Space Grant Program, a state-wide NASA-funded organization, is providing the resources for the Alaska Research CubeSat (ARC). SSEP is providing the team, which is still recruiting.

The program held a pizza party information session Sept.14 in the Duckering building. The team is looking for specialists with knowledge of subjects ranging from physics to math to videography, said Gregg Christopher, team leader and computer programmer. At the beginning of the party, the attendees overflowed into the hallway. Once the pizza disappeared, the crowd thinned considerably. The remaining students, about 15, stayed to discuss ARC’s design.

Amber Smolnik was one of the students who stayed. Pursuing a major in electrical engineering, she learned about the project from her advisor. The project captured her interest in space.

“Yeah, I’ll be back,” she said. “It sounds pretty cool.”

The mission begins with a list of limitations: each CubeSat must be at most four inches long, weigh no more than 2.2 pounds, and have some sort of mission, according to NASA’s CubeSat website. Before the launch, the team will need to run a prototype flight, said Wyatt Hurlbut, project manager. The Alaska Space Grant Program will need to secure additional funding to pay the $30,000 launch fee. This fee is much cheaper than other satellite launches, Alaska Space Grant Program director Denise Thorsen said.

Planning for the ARC began with Alex Arneson’s conceptual designs in the summer of 2009, Christopher said. In the fall of 2009, students further developed ARC in Space Systems Engineering, Hurlbut said. From that course and ARC’s predecessor, the Student Rocket Project, a core team formed. Hurlbut, Christopher, Scott Otterbacher, Jesse Frey, Sam Vanderwaal, and Dustin Olson lead the team. The core team consists of 12 other graduate students who focus on electrical and mechanical engineering, as well as communications and software.

SSEP has been to workshops in California and Juneau to explain their design. They designed the satellite out of commercial hardware, but in the future they would be willing to partner with hardware developers on campus, said Thorsen. They designed the system to withstand launch pressures that more expensive satellites would not experience in the “first class” nozzle, she said. For ARC, economy class means a bumpier ride.

The CubeSats must also fulfill missions. ARC will have one educational and three scientific mission objectives.

The educational objective is based around the mentorship structure of the team. The graduate members develop overall system communication. The newer members will handle the smaller pieces of the satellite, which will train them for more missions, Thorsen said.

The science objectives are research problems solved through three key components. The Launch Environment Data Logger records temperature and vibration in orbit, Hurlbut said. The team also plans to use an Imaging System to study ice and snow cover in the Arctic, Thorsen said.

Finally, there’s the Attitude Determination and Control System. The ARC orients itself with a magnetometer, similar to a compass, before using torque against the Earth’s magnetic field to stay spinning in a direction that points the camera towards Earth, Hurlbut said. To test how this fares in space, the team built a Helmholtz Cage last spring. The cage is able to remove the Earth’s magnetic field and simulate conditions in-orbit, Hurlbut said.

While the satellite is in orbit, it will be communicating with two ground stations. If NASA follows SSEP’s proposal, the ARC will naturally fall out of orbit within six months to a year. Right now, the team doesn’t know when, where, or how high the ARC will launch. They’re shooting for a December 2012 launch.

“None of that has been agreed yet, so we just don’t know,” Thorsen said.

After ground station costs and about three test builds of the satellite, the project will cost $40,000 — not including the $30,000 launch fee, Thorsen said. The Alaska Aerospace Corporation donated $20,000, which NASA will match. They cut costs with volunteers, and much of the paid work is through other program grants.

SSEP is using the mission to qualify for more opportunities, Thorsen said. The team can apply for more funding from NSF and NASA if they prove that they can complete this project. Finishing a mission is a milestone that opens a lot of possibilities for teams such as SSEP.

“This satellite, really, is our entrance into that world,” Thorsen said.

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