CU engineering students are busy preparing two satellites for launch in the coming year —one a 10-centimeter, 1-kilogram CubeSat designed to test a high-data-rate communication system, and the other an 18-inch- diameter, 50-kilogram sphere that will measure atmospheric drag and other space weather conditions that affect satellites in orbit.
Opportunities to launch student-built satellites are rare—and to have two orbital satellites selected and proceeding toward launch at the same time is practically unheard of.
“We’re all lucky that we’re in the right place at the right time,” says Lee Jasper, a master’s student in aerospace engineering who serves as the current program manager for DANDE, the Drag and Atmospheric Neutral Density Explorer.
“It’s so much fun to be here because everything is succeeding—it’s a blast,” agrees aerospace engineering junior Kyle Kemble.
DANDE won first place at the University Nanosatellite Program’s Flight Competition Review in January 2009, and with that came a guaranteed launch in about two years by the U.S. Air Force. Almost precisely one year later, in January 2010, it was announced that a CubeSat named Hermes, which has been under development for about two and a half years, was selected for launch by NASA in November 2010. It will be one of three university research satellites launched on a Taurus XL rocket in a mechanical system known as a Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer, or P-POD.
“We are all really excited for launch,” says Nicole Doyle, a senior aerospace engineering major who is the project manager for Hermes. “We are now in our final push to test the communication sequence system and to finish our environmental testing, which includes vibration and vacuum chamber tests to verify that the satellite can survive in orbit.”
Meanwhile, DANDE has undergone a number of changes and additional testing in anticipation of being delivered to the Air Force this summer.
“We’ve been giving DANDE a brain so it can do what we want it to do,” says Kemble, who serves as the integration and test lead. “We’ve given it the ability to process its own data and we’ve done a huge overhaul of its communication system.”
Additional tests have included a spin test at Lockheed Martin, more vacuum chamber testing with a mass spectrometer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and another separation test in a vacuum chamber at CU’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy.
Although the design challenges for the two satellite projects are radically different because of their difference in size, there are some benefits to having the two projects going on at the same time. The ground software team is working on both satellites, for example, and the communication systems are similar.
“This has been an incredible experience for me,” says Doyle. “We learn from other CU students who are working on other space projects and who have experience in the kinds of research we are doing. This is a great opportunity for students like me who want to work in the aerospace industry after college.”