October 19, 2006

C.U. Satellite Team Places in Qualifier

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“Far, far above Cayuga’s waters,” as the CUSat team is fond of saying, a satellite may soon bear Cornell’s name.

Over 100 Cornell engineers have assembled to compete in the University Nanosat-4 Program, an Air Force-sponsored competition between 11 universities to build the best spacecraft. The university that wins the competition will have its satellite launched into space.

Other universities include schools such as Utah State, Texas A&M and Washington University in St. Louis. The competition is fierce, but Cornell has shown to be a front-runner when it passed qualification review as one of the top two schools. They did so with their plan for CUSat, a satellite that can repair other spacecrafts while in space.

According to John Honchariw ’06, business manager, CUSat will contain innovative global positioning system technology.

Derived from the works of Prof. Mark Psiaki, mechanical and aerospace engineering, this technology will allow the satellite to navigate through space on centimeter level accuracy instead of meter level accuracy.

“It is one of the important highlights because no one has been able to get accuracy like that,” Honchariw said.

This technology is what will allow the satellite to perform complicated tasks such as navigate around other spacecrafts to determine the status of their physical condition.

“Cornell has one of the most aggressive missions in the Nanosat competition,” Honchariw said.

Despite the ambitiousness of the project, Cornell is still trailing behind Utah State University, who was named the top school in the qualification review. According to Kristopher Young grad, program manager, Utah State already has a spacecraft ready to go after losing the previous Nanosat competition by a hair; they will thus end up having double the time for their project than Cornell has.

When asked what is CUSat’s chance of beating Utah State’s satellite, Young responded, “Very low. Close to zero percent.”

But, despite the challenge Utah State presents, Young is still optimistic of CUSat’s outcome in the competition.

“The Air Force has been clear; they have said they’ll take anything ready to fly. They might take more than one,” he said.

Whether Cornell wins the competition or not, the University has already received many benefits by taking part in the project. Funding for the project is coming from private sponsors so the University can allow students to have hands on experience in working on a real satellite without much financial constraint.

“It’s a valuable opportunity both in terms of dollar amount of the actual launch, but also the rarity of a university team having the opportunity,” Hochariw said. “It is a huge win for the students.”

“It is something not a lot of freshmen have taken advantage of, but I joined right away because it sounded very exciting,” said Kevin Meissner’10. “I can look at a part I made and get excited because it is going to go to space.”
Another benefit Cornell is receiving is national attention as a contributor to space technology.

“A lot of people don’t know of Cornell in engineering in space, and we are putting it out there,” said Young.

According to Young, Cornell has lately been receiving a lot of attention from the space industry. The University has recently been in contact with multi-billion dollar corporations such as BORM, Northrop Grammar, Lockheed Martin and Orbital Science. Since the start of the project in spring 2005, 10 to 20 CUSat engineers have gone on to work for the Air Force.

The winner of the Nanosat-4 competition will be decided in March, on a date still to be announced. Until then, the CUSat team will be hard at work trying to produce a winning satellite.

We are not just a team that builds a car; we’re adding value to the technological community,” said Young. “We are advancing in this field, and we have done a heck of a job.”