March 30, 2007

Cornell Satellite to Be Launched Into Space

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The Cornell Satellite Team (CUSat) emerged victorious from the University Nanosat-4 Competition in Albuquerque, N.M., Tuesday. The prize is a free launch into space.

The competition, administered by the United States Air Force, featured 11 university teams, each of which designed a unique satellite.

Cornell’s involvement in the competition dates back two years, when the team’s design was initially selected from over 50 proposals. Since then, over 200 students have participated in the satellite’s development in positions ranging from software design to business and marketing to the actual integration of the satellite in a Rhodes Hall “clean room” laboratory.

The team currently has about 80 members, including undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty contributors.

The launch into space is “an extremely rare and valuable opportunity, especially for a student project,” said Prof. Mason Peck, mechanical and aerospace engineering, the CUSat advisor.

The Air Force provided $110,000 in funding and technological support to each team throughout the two-year period. CUSat also sought the sponsorship of over 30 research institutions and private companies.

“We are so grateful for our sponsors,” said Kris Young M.Eng ’07, project manager. “It is really hard to build a spacecraft, and these partnerships have truly been mutually beneficial.”

The University Nanosat-4 Competition is the only one of its type in the United States, and the team’s victory has major implications for both team members and Cornell. This is only the fourth cycle of the competition, and none of the previous winners have successfully launched their designs. Therefore, it is likely that the CUSat satellite could be the first student-designed and constructed satellite ever to be launched into space.

“Winning means increased Air Force and industry involvement and a lot of open doors for team members,” said Rob Zimmerman, M.Eng ’08, deputy program manager.

Sachin Desai, M.Eng ’07, the manufacturing team leader, added that “the victory is something that will be very important to Cornell, both in terms of recruitment and prestige.”

According to Peck, “Now, the satellite program at Cornell can really grow. Our win confirmed Cornell’s credibility in the field.”

The Air Force charged each team to think of a problem and to solve that problem by building a satellite and developing relevant technology.

“The goal was to convince the Air Force that we had the most flyable satellite, the most relevant mission, and the best educational value,” Peck said.

“The competition was very stiff, but a big advantage for us is that our mission was very relevant,” said Zimmerman.

The CUSat design focused on the concept of “in-orbit inspection” — using one satellite to inspect another while in space. Cornell’s design consists of two identical, hexagonal prism satellites, which separate once in orbit. One satellite flies around the other and takes pictures of its counterpart.

In the future, this sort of technology can be utilized to inspect larger spacecraft for damage, said Peck. In-orbit inspection is particularly useful because it can be used to detect and repair structural damage, thus preventing disasters such as the 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle tragedy.

The project was also unique for its use of CDGPS, a sophisticated GPS system with unparalleled accuracy, determining relative position within centimeters. The CDGPS technology, developed by Prof. Mark Psiaki, mechanical and aerospace engineering, is useful to the Air Force because it is both inexpensive and effective, Young said.

“We got to incorporate faculty research into our design, which is great for Cornell,” Young added.

Peck said that this was more than just a student project, because there was an actual research component. “We are working on a problem that has not been solved before,” he said.

Eleven team members and Peck were present at the Flight Competition Review in Albuquerque, where they presented their design to a panel of judges, participated in a question and answer session and performed a demonstration. Prior to this, the team submitted 3,200 pages of documents to the judges.

In addition to proving the functionality and relevancy of their design, Young said that “there was definitely a salesmanship aspect to the competition.”

“The make-or-break of the competition was the ability to transition from paper to hardware, which we were able to do,” said Anders Kelsey M.Eng ’07, the senior systems engineer.

After an hour of deliberation, the judges declared the Cornell team the winners.
Young’s reaction was one of relief and happiness. “We always had a shot, but it’s tough to gauge how you are doing throughout the competition because there are so many factors. We challenged ourselves to get as far as we could.”

Peck said he felt honored and proud, because the other teams were so strong. “Mostly, I am just happy for the students,” he added. “They sacrificed a lot — toward the end it was like a full time job for many of them.”

Victory, however, means more hard work for CUSat. The group still needs to build the rest of the satellite and write the corresponding software, which Young estimates will take another six months. A launch date and location have not been set, but Peck estimates that the launch will probably happen within the next two years.

Both Young and Desai expect Cornell to enter the competition again in the future. “We now have the resources to launch more craft in the future,” Young said.

Desai added, “It would be a shame if we didn’t continue this tradition.”

The entire CUSat team seems to be enthusiastic about sending their satellite into space. With a grin on his face, Peck said, “They said there’s no such thing as a free launch, but this is it.”