Most researchers’ experiments never leave their sight: From conception to application, materials and data are collected on the ground. But for the research candidates involved in NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative nanosatellite project, the goal is to have their work act thousands of miles away in space.
In this ambitious and novel project, NASA is awarding launch opportunities to a small fraction of competing schools and organizations. Along with other researchers, undergraduate mechanical engineer Sruti Vutukury ’21 is working on one of the sponsored projects at Cornell.
At the Cornell Space Systems Design Studio, headed by Prof. Mason Peck, aerospace engineering and systems engineering, a former Chief Technologist at NASA, Vutukury has been working on a flight experiment called the Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation project.
PAN was one of two candidate projects from Cornell in the running to fly as auxiliary payloads aboard NASA’s new space missions; both were selected to fly hopefully by 2019.
PAN focuses on the launch of two 3U+ CubeSats — tiny, 10 cubic centimeter satellites developed by NASA and space flight commercial companies as new tools for space research — that will autonomously dock in Low Earth Orbit. Docking is an important maneuver for joining separate space vehicles, such asColl satellites or modules of a space station.
“We can explore space in a more scalable, economical, and sustainable manner. If 95% [of these satellites] fail but 5% work, we get so much more information than sending one large satellite out,” Vutukury said.
PAN would be the first CubeSat mission to attempt docking and would lead the way for additional on-orbit capabilities like the assembly of space stations. Vutukury said the design and manufacturing have been completed, and the team is now moving onto environmental testing so that the satellite could experience conditions close to launch and orbit.
Of course, figuring out autonomous docking requires a lot of work from Cornell’s researchers. Vutukury’s daily work, amounting to 30 hours per week, involves integrating parts of the satellite by performing small fixes and tests or to work on simulations that model the satellite’s orientation and orbit in space.
Despite the long hours and workload as a member of the lab, Vutukury expressed excitement at working so close to the forefront of space research, especially given the ambition of the PAN project.
“Autonomous docking is absolutely ridiculous in the best way. [The satellite is] a tiny thing floating 500 km in the air. We don’t know where it is, but we need it to do what we want, and that’s the challenge,” Vutukury said.
Vutukury did not start working in the Cornell Space Systems Design Studio until this year. Her interest in flight started freshman year with her project team, Design Build Fly. She joined as a member of the structures subteam, working on the building mechanisms of their planes.
Vutukury was especially interested in the flight tests and the scoring/sizing analysis that went into deciding the best features for the plane. As she explained, the team uses several MATLAB scripts to characterize, size, and optimize the vehicle and all its subsystems.
“You can decide what you want to fix or iterate over or optimize. [It’s] all the challenges [fit] into one cohesive script,” Vutukury said.
Using the competition restraints and aerodynamic equations for flight performance, they can use this MATLAB model to generate all the possible design configurations of the plane that fulfills the mission objective.
“[Aerospace research] is definitely the direction I want to go in; aerospace is such a broad field, and I am glad I am getting to explore the space side so early on. I don’t know when else during your college career you would get an opportunity to learn the skills that you do on this project,” Vutukury said.