NASA To Send Cube Satellites Into Space

Florida high school's nanosatellite project is among 24 that NASA has chosen for its CubeSat Launch Initiative. Softball-size satellites will conduct research in space.

Patience Wait, Contributor

March 1, 2013

3 Min Read

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A Florida high school project is among 24 proposals accepted by NASA to send small satellites, or cubesats, into space over the next three years. CubeSats weigh about three pounds and are approximately four inches by four inches in size. NASA places the nanosatellites as secondary payloads on rocket launches that are already scheduled.

This is the fourth round of selections in NASA's CubeSat Launch Initiative. Students at Merritt Island High School in Brevard County, Fla., plan to build a cubesat containing two accelerometers to measure the amount of vibration in the case -- the Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer, or P-POD -- that holds the cubesats during launch and then deploys them.

A dozen students are involved in the project. "The students are building the satellite themselves with help from NASA," said faculty advisor Tracey Beatovich. The club has created a Facebook page to raise money to pay for the components needed.

[ Read about NASA's satellite overhaul: NASA Satellite Boosts Space Network. ]

The high school is partnering with students at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. The Cal-Poly CubeSat, dubbed CP9, is actually two cubes that contain accelerometers, plus a radio to transmit data back to Earth for the high school students to analyze. The Merritt Island High School cubesat, named StangSat, will stream data to the CP9 in real time during the launch using Wi-Fi.

"We're going to be demonstrating that wireless transmissions inside the P-POD aren't going to harm the launch," said Adam Darley, a senior at Cal-Poly who is serving as the CP9 project manager. "If we can demonstrate that, then it will act as a platform to being able to stream information without a radio link."

Some of the other cubesat projects selected by NASA involve research that is best carried out from space. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), is behind a cubesat that will measure the properties of aerosols – small airborne particles – and clouds, and how they interact.

The UMBC satellite will contain a multi-angle imaging polarimeter, which makes images like a camera, but from various angles, said Vanderlei Martins, associate professor at UMBC. It also will contain devices to stabilize the cubesat and remotely control the device lens.

"We'll be measuring droplet sizes in water clouds with very high accuracy," Martins said, as well as the distribution of droplets in a cloud. "The broader the distribution, the more likely it is to rain." The researchers also are interested in understanding how man-made pollution affects clouds. UMBC is working with Space Dynamics Laboratory in Utah, the Science and Technology Corporation, and NASA's Goddard and Wallops space centers. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is providing funding for the science components.

Cubesats are limited in the power and size of the instruments they contain. "We have to do very focused measurements with simple instruments, but they can still get valuable information and lower the risk of future (NASA) missions," said Prof. Martins.

Building a cubesat can cost from about $100,000 to $5 million, said Martins. UMBC's will cost around $2.5 million.

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Patience Wait


Washington-based Patience Wait contributes articles about government IT to InformationWeek.

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