Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation team members perform tests on spacecraft batteries

April 9, 2018

NASA To Send 2 Satellites Into Space Designed By Cornell Lab

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There’s something about outer space that naturally captures our imagination. From little kids dreaming about becoming astronauts, to full grown adults gazing up at the majesty of the stars, the final frontier timelessly inspires us all. Despite this seemingly natural fascination, few could ever hope to get there because of the exorbitant costs often associated with space flight missions. However, with the advent of 3D printing and work from Space Systems Design Studio – the research lab of Prof. Mason Peck, mechanical and aerospace engineering – this reality is sure to change in the near future.

This past March, NASA selected 11 research groups from across the country to partake in their CubeSat launch initiative, which was a project designed to encourage the development of “CubeSats,” or “nano-satellites.” According to NASA, a typical CubeSat unit measures 4×4 inches, and weighs roughly three pounds. The benefit to launching smaller satellites into space is that they cost less per unit to manufacture and can therefore become feasible projects for smaller research groups seeking to innovate.

Two of the 11 projects chosen by NASA for their technological potential were the Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation and Alpha CubeSat, both of which are initiatives from Space Systems Design Studio.

Stewart Aslan ’19, who is the project lead of PAN discussed the mission of his group.

“Our goal for the Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation project is to break down barriers that prevent small groups like university labs with limited funding from accomplishing complex space missions,” Aslan said.

To achieve this goal, Aslan and his team utilized 3D printing and commercially available parts such as hardware store equipment to construct the body and technological implementations of the CubeSat. Never before has the cost effective 3D printed propulsion system that Aslan’s team designed been successfully implemented into satellite construction. A successful launch of PAN’s CubeSat in early 2019 could potentially be groundbreaking in terms of future implications for 3D printed satellite parts.

Aslan elaborated on the cost impact of his team’s efforts.

“Other small satellite attitude control systems with similar capabilities to ours generally cost close to $100,000 or more. We have driven that cost down to $2,500 for our mission,” said Aslan.

The Alpha CubeSat team similarly used cutting edge 3D printing tech to manufacture their CubeSat unit, with the added contribution of a newly developed 1m x 1m light-sail designed to work with the microsatellite that would automatically unfold while in space. A light-sail is an extremely thin layer of Kapton – a very thermally stable film layer – that is can be pushed through space by radiation pressure, which is generated by electromagnetic radiation.

The light sail developed by the Alpha team will contain four chip-satellites or “ChipSats” on each corner of the sail, which are an even smaller type of satellite than CubeSats.

Liam Crotty ’17, who is the project lead of Alpha, talked about the group’s chip-satellites.

“Our chip-satellites are the smallest free-flying spacecraft in the world. Each is about the size of a cracker, weighs less than a nickel, and carries a suite of sensors for characterizing its environment,” said Crotty.

Crotty also discussed how the chip-satellites developed by his team could potentially alter the very way in which we explore space.

“Our chip-satellites allow for [localized] sensing of a very large region of space, since they can be distributed over a wide area. Furthermore, they are so cheap that they can be used more recklessly… This is a new paradigm in space exploration.”

With the deadline for the CubeSat project set in early 2019 by NASA, both teams have moved into overdrive in response to this time crunch.

For the PAN team, the bulk of their remaining work lies in preparing their CubeSat for a variety of launch conditions.

“Every component must be tested over and over in many different situations to make sure that no matter what happens after launch, the spacecraft will function as intended,” Aslan said.

For the Alpha team, they are continuing to tackle the challenge of handling communications systems for the extremely small chip-satellites.

“We simply don’t have much room for solar cells, so it’s hard to generate much power. As a result, our radio transmissions are very weak and it takes a lot of processing power on the part of the receiver to hear the signal” said Crotty. “The team is working on technologies for improving the data rate by doing more sophisticated signal processing in the receiver stations.”

As space equipment progressively becomes cheaper to manufacture and more accessible to the public, one day we all might get to let out our inner astronaut.