November 28, 2005

C.U. Builds Repair Satellite

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Cornell University’s Space System Lab’s current project, CUSat, has set out to engineer a satellite that will act as a diagnostician for spacecraft through digital cameras, three dimensional imaging and GPS.

“It’s like an inspector, or a doctor that just takes your temperature and measures your pulse – just tells you what’s broke,” said Prof. Mason Peck, mechanical and aerospace engineering, the principal investigator of the project.

The team has organized 12 substructures with 12 leads, or head organizers, to tackle the task of not only winning the Nanosatellite-4 Competition but conserving precious time and manpower in the space industry by streamlining the building of spacecraft and replacing astronauts with robots for certain procedures, making space exploration safer overall.

“If something goes wrong in space, you have to send six people up to fix it. You can do initial inspection with this project,” said Kris Young ’06, the lead for the harness substructure team.

The idea of “fault tolerance” governed the preliminary design of the satellite, according to Prof. Peck. For the competition, two fully-functional, identical satellites will be launched, but one acts as a dummy. If the photographing satellite fails, the other can take the lead. One satellite takes pictures of the inert other; the pictures are sent back to the ground station, where they are assembled into a 3-D model. The structural health of the satellite can then be determined.

“This is a huge strength of the design. Most student satellites do not have as robust a design as ours, or are able to tolerate many faults that can jeopardize a mission as ours can,” Peck said. “And it was done a shoestring budget,” he added.

Cornell, after having progressed past the first round and securing a $110,000 grant, is one of 11 universities in the running for the first-place prize: a free-launch on one of the Air Force’s rockets, worth two to three million dollars.

No second party aids in the creation of the final 3-D model – the team members of CUSat exclusively orchestrate the process. This independence makes CUSat the first team to demonstrate an end-to-end system, according to Peck.

“Once they separate in space, the satellites use sub-centimeter GPS to find each other,” said Kevin Martineau ’07, the business and industry relations manager for CUSat.

According to Peck, this CUSat does not just take pictures – it relies on GPS to change position and orientation in space and avoid collision with the spacecraft it’s inspecting. In its diagnostician role, the satellite, following a Hippocratic oath of its own, cannot damage what it diagnoses.

The team has to comply with the guidelines set forth by the Nanosat-4 User’s Guide. Entries are limited to 30 kilograms – CUSat’s currently weighs in at 40. But Peck said that other teams who have won have gone overweight and that at 30 kilograms CUSat would be a less of a satellite.

The guidelines also mandate that the construction of the satellite provides a valuable educational experience. Many of the participants in CUSat receive credit for their work and, before they graduate, will have contributed to a real-life project with tangible results that complements their academic work.

“Sophomore students through post-docs are working on this and it will lead to a lot of jobs for CUSat people,” Martineau said.

CUSat will influence participants careers after Cornell. According to Martineau, the companies who make in-kind donations to CUSat benefit because they essentially create a collection of 70 students trained to use their products. CUSat is a pool of knowledge out of which the companies can hire, he added.

“It’s a great opportunity for all of us to put what we learned in class into a project that can actually be launched in space,” said Patrick Yu ’06, the Attitude Determination, Control and Navigation Subsystem (ADCNS) lead.

The Nanosat-4 User’s Guide also requires that teams organize outreach programs and share their work with the public. CUSat participants have gone to local middle schools and done satellite engineering exercises with students and also spoke about their work at Cornell’s Summer Day Camp.

The Air Force Research Laboratory, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics jointly sponsor the competition. CUSat began working in April 2005. Summer 2007 currently stands as the prospective launch date, but, according to Peck summer 2008 is a more realistic launch date.

Peck is confident about CUSat’s ultimate success: “I think we have a killer design. But it’s anyone’s guess who’ll win. Feedback so far tells us we’re in good shape,” he said.

Archived article by Jessica DiNapoli
Sun Staff Writer