U team builds mini-satellite

‘Minnesat’ competed in a national contest by building a fully functioning satellite.

by Mike Enright

Ask anybody in the aerospace industry and they’ll probably say building a fully functional space satellite is tough.

It’s even tougher when you’ve never done it before; just ask any member of Minnesat, the University’s aptly named miniature satellite building team.

The group just finished its rookie season, competing for the past two years in the fourth edition University Nanosatellite Program, a national student satellite design and construction competition where the winners get their idea launched into space on the government’s dime.

Last month, after spending countless hours and a couple hundred thousand dollars – relatively cheap by space standards – to build the 18.7-inch tall and 66-pound spacecraft, the team took fifth out of 11 schools. Cornell University won Nanosat-4.

The University team is also already competing in the next round, Nanosat-5, which officially began in January.

Bill Garrard, a faculty adviser on the project, said he thought the students did very well, given that it was their first attempt.

“We ended up in the top 50 percent, and we beat some schools that have participated for a number of years,” he said.

More important, Garrard said, is the specialized training and education students got, learning things you probably won’t find in the classroom.

“This was a tremendous process for students,” he said. “It was just great to watch them start out and grow through this whole process to the point that they were giving professional-grade presentations.”

And they had to, Garrard said, because the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, one of the competition’s sponsors along with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and NASA, doesn’t hold anything back.

“We had five people here from the Air Force, some officers and some civilian employees, who spent a full day giving the students as difficult a design review as I’ve seen that has been given in the industry,” he said. “People are really taking us seriously. This is not just some kind of a make-work project that they cooked up for some kids to do.”

Kent Miller, the project program manager for AFOSR, said the government’s interest in funding ventures such as UNP is to keep the vitality of the space program going by getting its future innovators a head start in experience.

An added benefit, he said, is that through projects like Nanosat, colleges are able to tackle similar issues found in industry, but try to solve them using a different approach than big companies use.

“A Lockheed (Martin) would take five years and $5 million to build the same satellite the students are doing in two years and $100,000,” Miller said. “So they have to look for different solutions to problems that the big companies don’t have to deal with.”

For team member and aerospace engineering senior Vincent Jusuf, that challenge is part of what sparked his interest in the project.

“Basically, designing something to survive in a space environment is an engineering challenge to the extreme,” Jusuf said. “It is a hostile environment, and if you can make something work in space, you can make it work on the ground.”

Although his main job on the team was to analyze the satellite’s structure and make sure it didn’t get too hot or cold once in space, he and other team members did just about anything and everything.

“It sort of throws you in the deep end of the pool, which sort of summarizes the entire project for me,” Jusuf said, “just kind of overwhelming at times, at most times.”

Ellie Field, fellow Minnesat member and student project manager for Nanosat-5, said out of all the work that went into the project, the hardest part was going through all the documentation the sponsors required.

“It’s so much writing, and when I’m done with class all I want to do is go build stuff, I don’t want to write stuff,” Field said.

The mechanical engineering sophomore said she had the most fun actually constructing the space module.

“I guess I wasn’t too happy when I was doing that during spring break, but now that I remember that, I think I liked that the best,” Field said. “I think actually working with your hands is probably the best way to learn how something works.”

Each team’s satellite design had to incorporate some kind of unique experiment.

For Minnesota, that meant using global positioning system technology to determine an object’s specific attitude – in this case the satellite’s.

“Attitude is figuring out where something is pointing,” Field said. “So, for example, the Hubble Telescope has really, really accurate attitude because it has to point at galaxies that are really far away.”

Usually, this is done using expensive sensors, she said, making GPS a cheaper alternative, if it works.