U students join national space race

by Jeannine Aquino

Not many people can boast about creating a spacecraft while in college, but about 25 University students can claim just that.

A University team is competing against 10 other universities, working on creating a satellite for a nationwide contest sponsored by the U.S. Air Force. The winning satellite will be launched into space.

Vincent Jusuf, an aerospace engineering senior, said this is the first time a University team has entered the competition.

“We’re kind of the pioneers in this competition (for the University),” he said.

Other universities, such as Utah State, have entered the competition before and are just tweaking past satellite entries, Jusuf said. The University basically has to start from scratch, he said.

The University Nanosatellite Program, a two-year competition that started six years ago, allows aspiring aerospace engineers to gain firsthand experience while still in college. It also helps spur innovations in small satellite design and development, according to an Air Force Research Laboratory news release.

“The most exciting part about it is seeing students becoming seasoned engineers,” said Demoz Gebre-Egziabher, professor of aerospace engineering and mechanics and the principal investigator for the project.

Students might start off not knowing much about designing and building a satellite, he said, but they end up learning a lot over the course of the competition.

“They’re building a real satellite,” Gebre-Egziabher said. “It’s not a paper study. It’s not a make-believe design. It’s actually something that will fly.”

The University team has been working on the satellite since April 2005. Finished with the design and with a wood-and-foam life-sized model at hand, the team plans on building the satellite during the summer. The contest deadline is March 2007.

Building a satellite involves many components, including solar panels, a flight computer, a communication system, an internal health monitoring and control device and the actual structure of the satellite.

In addition to building a working satellite, each university has to investigate some new aspect of satellite design. The University team is looking into how to use the Global Positioning System to determine the orientation of small satellites.

“There are other systems which do this already that are either large, expensive or both,” said Jason Mintz, an aerospace engineering senior and program manager for the project. “We’re trying to figure out something small, lightweight and inexpensive.”

With approximately $100,000 in their budget provided by the sponsoring organization, the University team plans to buy several commercially available products for use in the satellite, including handheld radios and a GPS receiver.

“We plan on using a lot of common components that you can buy in RadioShack and adapting them to use in space,” Mintz said. “A lot of things will work in space, but there are certain things you have to modify to make sure the temperature or the vacuum won’t destroy them.”

The final satellite will be 18 inches tall and 18 inches wide. It will be an aluminum hexagon featuring three shelves for components.