Tiny Satellite Has Big Potential

04/28/11 12:44PM By Steve Zind
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VPR/Steve Zind
Vermont Technical College physics Professor Carl Brandon with the CubeSat.
(Host)  In recent years advances in science have made sophisticated technology smaller and more affordable.  Smart phones and pocket sized GPS units are just a couple of examples.

At the rate things are going, it may be possible for us to launch our own personal satellites someday. 

In fact, it's already being done by some universities. 

VPR's Steve Zind tells us how a Vermont physics professor is working with students to send a satellite into orbit next spring.  

(Zind)   It's not unusual for people of a certain age, let's say their 60s, to recall a childhood fascination with space travel.  They were the ones who conferred pop star status on America's first astronauts.  They dropped everything to watch the early blast-offs and cheered at every successful splashdown.  

Vermont Technical College physics Professor Carl Brandon is in that age group, but he's a little different.  His heroes back then weren't the astronauts.  They were the scientists behind the space program.

(Brandon) "I read all the articles in Collier's magazine written by Willy Ley and Werner Von Braun back in the 50s." 

(Zind)  So here it is 50 years later and Brandon is now leading his own space program, thanks to a miniature satellite called a CubeSat. 

It's an off-the-shelf item that looks like something made with Erector Set parts.  The light metal frame is about 4 inches on each side.  Scientists like Brandon use Cube Sats as a vehicle for launching their experiments into space - assuming they have a few hundred thousand dollars available. Brandon is using grant money from NASA. 

His students are helping build and test the equipment that they'll install in the CubeSat which Brandon keeps locked in a desk drawer.

(Brandon) "In fact I can show you one right here.  I actually have the flight unit.  This is the one that's actually going to go into space.  So, they make a structure, and its aluminum structure...in the bottom we have a mother board and on top of it a little processor board...we use a Texas Instrument MSP430 2618 microprocessor."

(Zind)  A CubeSat starter kit like this one costs $7500 dollars.  Depending on what you design your satellite to do - conduct zero gravity experiments or study interstellar phenomena - you purchase or build your own circuitry, then pack it into the little cube.

Brandon's physics students have been working on a CubeSat scheduled for launch from Florida's Cape Canaveral next March.  Students at the University of Vermont and Norwich University are lending a hand on some aspects of the design.

(Brandon) "Here is our radio.  It's called a Helium 100 and it's a 2-meter receiver.  It's 145 megahertz and it's a 445 megahertz transmitter..."

(Zind)  It's easy for Brandon to slide into a language that seems more numeric than alphabetic.  But even when you can't quite grasp the details, his enthusiasm for CubeSats keeps you listening.

(Brandon) "I just got back Sunday from the Cubesat developers workshop at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California, and what people are doing with CubeSats now is just amazing and how it has advanced in the last few years.  These can be made in this size, a single unit which is 4 inches long, a double length, 8 inches long or a triple length, 12 inches long, or sometimes its 1 ½ units.

(Zind)  "It's not a cube any longer."

(Brandon)  "No, it's not a cube, but it's still the same dimensions this way, but it can be double or triple length.  And they're designed to fit in a launch box that was developed at Cal Poly called  P-POD, which is Poly Pico Satellite Orbit Deployer, that's the acronym..."

(Zind)  Brandon estimates 30 to 40 CubeSats have been launched in the past 8 years.  Most have been assembled by large universities.  VTC is among the smallest institutions in the country, and the first in New England, to plan a CubeSat launch.

To get his CubeSat into space, Brandon won't need his own rocket.  They're launched for a price, on a rocket used for commercial satellites.

(Brandon) "Whenever there's a launch opportunity, meaning a commercial launch of some sort, they all have the ability to carry more weight.  Most of the rockets that are used to launch satellites were developed from ballistic missiles which carried heavy warheads.  When they're launching the satellite they have to have lots of ballast because they have to have the same weight to make the rocket work properly, so a lot of them just have iron ballast."

(Zind)  The increasing popularity of CubeSats has sparked a bidding war for available space on commercial rockets.  So the price the commercial companies charge to launch one has gone from about 30 thousand to as much as one hundred thousand dollars.  

(Brandon)  "Commercial space people like Boeing and Aerospace Corporation and people like that sort of looked at these as toys, and the same was true of NASA.  They didn't figure they had any particular utility. And then when the universities started doing stuff with them and with the advances in the miniaturization of electronics, all of a sudden people realized you can do real science with these little things. So, everybody else got involved with it and it bid up the price of the launch slots that were available."

(Zind)  The VTC CubeSat will orbit in space for only about 8 weeks.  Then it will burn up in the atmosphere. Its purpose is to test navigation equipment for a second CubeSat that Brandon hopes to launch. 

(Brandon) "We are testing a navigation system that's going to be used on our bigger project, which is to eventually, if we get enough funding to build a triple CubeSat that will be self-propelled with an ion drive to go to the moon."

(Zind)  So someday, provided a million and a half dollars in grant money is forthcoming, and after much work by Brandon and VTC students, a Lilliputian space ship four inches wide and twelve inches long will fly from here to the moon, where it will land.   

"So this is our CubeSat lab..."

(Zind)  The electronics for the satellite they'll launch next year are laid out for testing on work benches in a small laboratory at VTC.

(Brandon) "In here we have our batteries which we're going to be using.  These just arrived from Scotland a couple of weeks ago, these batteries are a thousand dollars."

(Zind)  The small, energy efficient parts for the CubeSat aren't cheap.  But Brandon says they're a fraction of what regular satellite equipment costs. 

He sees a bigger future for CubeSats as budgets get tighter and he says it isn't far-fetched that small space vehicles like the one he keeps in a desk drawer can do important scientific work.  Already a 4 inch CubeSat can do more than a Volkswagon-sized satellite could 30 or 40 years ago. 

(Brandon) "Cause CubeSats will be able to do as much at much lower costs what larger satellites have been doing so far.  At the CubeSat conference, somebody just announced that they're working on an X-ray telescope.  I was astounded that somebody is doing that in a CubeSat."

(Zind)  The students working on Vermont Technical College's CubeSat won't be around five or six years from now when the it's launched to the moon. But Brandon says the fact that they worked on a project funded by NASA grants will look great on their resumes. And he hopes that the project might spark the same interest in some of his students that he felt years ago during the first stirrings of the space program.

For VPR news, I'm Steve Zind.

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