Students to Launch UMass Lowell’s First Satellite into Space
If everything goes as planned, in 2018 a small satellite designed and built by a team of more than 50 undergraduate students from the Kennedy College of Sciences and the Francis College of Engineering will be launched into orbit, circling the Earth every 90 minutes while traveling at about 17,000 miles per hour.
The project — named SPACE HAUC (pronounced “Space Hawk”), which stands for Science Program Around Communications Engineering with High-Achieving Undergraduate Cadres — is one of 47 university proposals chosen recently for funding by NASA in a nationwide competitive process under its Undergraduate Student Instrument Project (USIP). The space agency called SPACE HAUC a “top-notch student training program” and awarded the team the maximum amount of $200,000 over two years to develop and test a prototype satellite. Other university teams selected include the Rochester Institute of Technology, Harvard College, Purdue University, Georgia Tech Research Corp., and the University of California, San Diego.
Mechanical engineering seniors, from left, Charles Barbon, Jacob Hulme, William Mann and Dat Le examine a full-scale model of SPACE HAUC-1.
Through USIP, “NASA seeks to build science, technical, leadership and project skills among undergraduate students by offering them real-world experience in developing and flying science or technology experiments that are relevant to NASA’s missions,” the space agency stated in a press release.
Space Research in a Cube
The SPACE HAUC-1 satellite is based on the CubeSat model used worldwide for low-Earth orbit space research. A typical CubeSat is a miniaturized, 10-centimeter-cube (1U) satellite weighing less than 1.3 kilograms that uses commercial off-the-shelf components. SPACE HAUC-1’s preliminary plan will use a 3U design, which gives it a total length of 30 centimeters (12 inches) and total weight of four kilograms (nine pounds). Four solar panels will be deployed in orbit to supply electricity to power the satellite’s electronics.
“The use of CubeSats as educational tools at universities has grown exponentially over the past decade due to their small size, low cost and short development time,” says Dat Le, a mechanical engineering senior who is the project’s program manager. “SPACE HAUC will give me and my fellow students valuable hands-on experience in astronautical engineering research and development.” Work on the satellite is being conducted at the Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology (LoCSST) on East Campus.
SPACE HAUC’s goal is to demonstrate the practicality of communicating at high data rates in the X band using a phased array of patch antennas on a CubeSat. The antennas will operate at frequencies of 8.0 to 8.4 gigahertz from an orbit of about 450 kilometers.
“Many CubeSats use simple dipole antennas communicating in the S band,” notes Le. “While easy to implement, these simple satellite arrays limit the maximum data transfer rate to no more than 2 to 5 megabits per second.”
LoCSST researchers Supriya Chakrabarti and Susanna Finn, third and second from left, respectively, conduct weekly planning meetings with the SPACE HAUC student team.
He says for future CubeSat applications such as controlling formations of satellites or interplanetary exploration missions, the communications system must be able to handle higher data transfer rates.
“SPACE HAUC-1 is designed to transfer telemetry data 20 times faster than current designs, up to 50 to 100 megabits per second,” explains Le.
Continuing Forays into Space
“At this point, we don’t know yet the exact launch date for the satellite nor the launch vehicle that will be used,” say physics Prof. Supriya Chakrabarti, SPACE HAUC’s principal investigator and LoCSST director. “That decision is entirely up to NASA.”
Once the satellite gets launched, it will stay in orbit for about a year or more before it gradually loses altitude and falls back to Earth. As it re-enters the atmosphere, aerodynamic stress and heating will cause the satellite to disintegrate and burn up harmlessly high above the ground.
This mission will not be the first time that the university’s research has made it into space. In 2012 Profs. Timothy Cook and Chakrabarti launched a NASA-funded experiment, called IMAGER, aboard a sounding rocket in New Mexico to observe dust formation in the spiral galaxy M101. Three years later they launched another rocket-borne experiment, named PICTURE-B, to take direct images of the dust disk around the star Epsilon Eridani. And in the fall of 2017 and 2019, Chakrabarti will use huge helium balloons to send aloft an instrument — PICTURE-C — to the very edge of the atmosphere to detect Jupiter-size planets orbiting Sun-like stars in the Milky Way.
“SPACE HAUC-1 will be different because the two earlier sounding rocket flights were suborbital, that is, the science payload didn’t have enough velocity to stay in orbit, so at the end of the observation the payload had to parachute back to Earth,” explains Chakrabarti. “SPACE HAUC-1 will be UMass Lowell’s first mission to actually go around the Earth. And it will do so many, many times during its lifetime.”
A Joint Effort
“A project of this magnitude and scope would not have been possible without the help and support of many parties, from writing the proposal to technical consultations,” says Chakrabarti. “SPACE HAUC represents a great collaboration between students and faculty members from the Kennedy College of Sciences and the Francis College of Engineering as well as the university’s administration, research centers and industry partners.”
Of the 51 members of the student team, 38 are from mechanical and electrical engineering and computer science, while the rest are from computer engineering, physics, chemical engineering and plastics engineering. In addition to LoCSST, other research collaborators include the university’s Raytheon-UMass Lowell Research Institute and the Printed Electronics Research Collaborative, as well as the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium, Raytheon, BAE Systems and Draper Laboratory.