First UMN small satellite now in space

SOCRATES, launched into space by NASA, uses X-ray sensors for navigation and will collect data related to accelerations in sun flares.

Project manager Jenna Burgett, left, and chief engineer Kyle Houser, right, discuss their process of creating and designing SOCRATES in a lab in Tate Hall on Friday, Nov. 8. SOCRATES, which NASA launched into space on Saturday, Nov. 2, is expected to begin orbiting the earth in January of 2020.

Sydni Rose

Project manager Jenna Burgett, left, and chief engineer Kyle Houser, right, discuss their process of creating and designing SOCRATES in a lab in Tate Hall on Friday, Nov. 8. SOCRATES, which NASA launched into space on Saturday, Nov. 2, is expected to begin orbiting the earth in January of 2020.

Jiang Li

University of Minnesota senior Jenna Burgett was on bleachers two miles from the NASA Virginia launching site on Nov. 2, watching a rocket launch into space that carried a small satellite she and other students helped create. 

“The sound hits you and from two miles away …  the bleachers were shaking. You can hear it resonating in your ears and in your chest,” said Burgett, manager of the University’s Small Satellite Project.

The cube satellite, Signal Opportunity CubeSat Ranging and Timing Experiment System (SOCRATES), is the first small satellite created by the University sent into space by NASA. The satellite is equipped with high energy X-ray sensor detectors that can help with “deep space navigation” when GPS is not available. SOCRATES will also collect data related to electronic accelerations in sun flares to help research on solar anomalies.

The project is a collaboration between University faculty and students of different disciplines, like aerospace engineering, physics and astrophysics. SOCRATES is currently on the International Space Station and is expected to be released back into Earth’s orbit in January 2020.

The project is part of the NASA Undergraduate Student Instrument Project, which provides opportunities for undergraduate students to launch small satellites into space.

Started three years ago, more than 30 students were involved in the University project led by two students, chief engineer Kyle Houser and project manager Burgett. 

SOCRATES was born in the University’s Small Satellite Project lab, which was founded by aerospace engineering and mechanics professor Demoz Gebre-Egziabher and physics professor Lindsay Glesener for their mutual interests in small satellites.

“Building a spacecraft is even harder than it sounds,” Glesener said.

The team came up with the initial idea in late 2015. After their proposals were approved, the NASA USIP program and the MN Space Grant Consortium funded the project.

The vast majority of the work and responsibilities were in the hands of students, the professors said. In addition, the students communicated regularly with NASA and various engineers. The professors served as supervisors within the group, giving advice and suggestions. 

Gebre-Egziabher said he thinks it is a good experience for students in real-life engineering training.

“It is such a great experience,” Houser said. “You typically don’t get to experience like a full engineering project with all of its technical reviews, the hurdles you have to go through, the licenses you have to get and the clients you have to meet … So, it has been very beneficial for everybody.”

Before sending the satellite to NASA in August, students conducted various environmental tests on SOCRATES to make sure it can survive in space.

“We tried really hard to ‘break’ it,” Glesener said.

Burgett was lucky enough to make her way to Virginia to see the launching in person, while the rest of the team watched the live stream online. 

After the satellite is released into Earth’s orbit in January, the team will monitor the temperature and voltage of the satellite and also collect the data it gathers. 

Gebre-Egziabher said he thinks there is a lot of potential for CubeSats in the future.

“CubeSats are becoming a very popular vehicle for doing all kinds of research so it’s just starting,” Gebre-Egziabher said. “It’s an area of aerospace and astrophysics that going to grow.”

Now, the team is working on two other small satellites, which are expected to launch in 2021 and 2022.

“I think [the small satellites] will come with more and more purposes that we are able to branch out and to apply the means to even more departments in the University as well,” Glesener said.