March 17, 2011

Student Satellite ‘Violet’ Wins Award From Air Force

Print More

A satellite designed and constructed by Cornell students placed second in the United States Air Force Research Lab’s sixth University Nanosat Program in January.

Dubbed “Violet,” the satellite was created to compete in the AFRL’s program, according to Kevin Meissner ’10, the team’s program manager. According to Meissner, Violet is expected launch into orbit in the future.

The name Violet comes from the satellite’s equipped ultraviolet spectrometer, which, Prof. Mason Peck, mechanical and aerospace engineering, said, will “help understand how extrasolar planets around distant stars may look.”

In addition to the ultraviolet spectrometer, Violet will test new high agility actuators — gyroscopic maneuvering devices — that will help satellites move more accurately and freely, Meissner said. This mobility technology, tested by Violet, could be used in a number of fields, he said, including in scientific observation and spy satellites.

The Cornell team received two seed grants of $55,000 from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research after its project proposal was accepted by the AFRL. Cornell was one of 10 universities chosen to receive such funding, Meissner said.

“The universities come up with their own missions for their satellites and build their satellite, and the Air Force does a series of reviews along the way,” Meissner said. “After two years there’s a final competition … and [students] try to convince the Air Force theirs is the most flight ready or the most relevant mission.”

The Cornell students placed behind the students from the Michigan Technological University, whose winning satellite was constructed with different colored surfaces to help viewers determine the angle of the craft without the use of internal machinery, Meissner said.

Although there is typically no second place prize, Violet was rewarded one because it was deemed “the most flight-ready” and fulfilled a mission the Air Force found relevant.

“We were the only university that had a complete satellite; we were the most flight ready,” Meissner said. “There’s so much interest in our program in the Air Force, we’re still going to be launched.”

Peck coordinated the funding for the project.

Nanosatellites such as Violet — loosely defined as satellites weighing less than 100 kilograms — could help revolutionize space programs, Peck wrote in an e-mail.

“Violet’s effect on space exploration may consist of a domino effect,” Peck said. “Combining extreme agility and small size might first allow existing problems to be solved more efficiently. If time is money, Violet’s innovations save money.”

The total cost of Violet was around $1,000,000, said Amanda Kuczun ’12, another Violet team member whose job is to test that satellite components could survive launch into orbit. Although Violet was assembled on campus, Kuczun said that several companies donated various components that were unattainable at Cornell.

Additionally, Peck said that he was able to raise funds from contacts throughout the “industry and elsewhere in the Air Force,” as well as “spaceflight qualified hardware” valued at more than $2,000,000.

Violet is one of two satellite teams at Cornell. The other team, CUSat, placed first in the AFRL’s fourth UNP competition on March 27, 2007, Peck said, and is on track to be the first Cornell spacecraft ever in orbit when it is launched in March 2012.

Although spacecraft construction is relatively new at Cornell, Peck said he hopes the success of the two teams will help further recognition of the program both within the University and on a national stage.

“CUSat’s performance in UNP-4 has already given our program considerable credibility with research sponsors,” Peck said. “Violet broadens what we have to offer. The combination of first and second-place showings makes Cornell’s entries in this competition the most successful in its history.”

Original Author: Byron Kittle