Tech Students' Winning Satellite Will Be Launched into Orbit
by Marcia Goodrich, senior writer
A team of students has taken first place in the prestigious University Nanosat 6 competition, earning the rare privilege of having the Department of Defense launch its custom-made satellite into orbit.
The University Nanosat Program is sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory, which handpicked the 11 teams from dozens of universities across the nation through a competitive selection process.
Each of the 11 teams was then awarded a two-year contract to design and build a satellite to perform a mission of its choosing. The program culminated with a flight competition review, held Jan. 16-17 in Albuquerque, N.M., adjacent to Kirtland Air Force Base. By winning the competition, Michigan Tech received a contract to continue development of the satellite and have it launched into orbit aboard a DOD rocket.
"This is a major accomplishment by our students," said Chair William Predebon (ME-EM). "It's just fantastic."
Built by students in the Aerospace Enterprise, Michigan Tech's entry is named Oculus-ASR, for "attitude and shape recognition" and for its role as an orbiting eye. Students engineered the 154-pound satellite to help a DOD effort called Space Situational Awareness.
"The DOD wants to know what's orbiting the Earth, who owns it, what it's doing, and what it might do in the future," said team advisor L. Brad King, an associate professor of mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics.
Unfortunately, unless you use an extremely powerful telescope, it's hard to tell much about satellites from the surface of the Earth. For the most part, they look like nondescript dots of white light drifting overhead. Yet, the light only looks white to the naked eye. You could learn a lot about those dots by analyzing their spectral content, or color, as it is reflected from the satellite's surfaces. Oculus was designed to help the Air Force do just that.
Each side of Oculus has different optical characteristics. Once it's in orbit, students will be able to manipulate it so that different sides face the Earth. The air force will analyze the spectral content of Oculus as the satellite flies over its Maui Optical and Supercomputing observatory in Hawaii and try to determine the satellite's attitude, i.e., which side is facing earthward.
Then the air force will compare its results with the actual orientation of the satellite, which is sent via radio to a ground station on the Michigan Tech campus. If this technique is successful, observers on the ground will be able to tell what a satellite might be looking at as it passes overhead.
"The air force is also concerned about orbiting objects changing shape," said King, "because if a satellite changes shape, that means its owners have new plans for the vehicle. Our satellite has four panels that can open on command. We'll open those panels to exercise the air force's ability to detect the shape change."
"Our satellite also has two sensitive cameras, which is where it got its name; 'oculus' is Latin for 'eyeball,'" said King. It will release a target, which both Oculus and scientists in Maui will photograph. "We will have two images to compare, one from space, one from ground.
"In general, our role will be to calibrate their telescopes," said King. "It's a very capable little vehicle. There's a lot packed into it."
That functionality is a big reason Oculus won Nanosat 6. "Nobody wants to spend a million dollars to put a beeping university mascot into orbit," King observed. "One of our strengths was our vehicle's relevance to the DOD, the fact that it was doing meaningful science. We had DOD branches approaching us while we were building it, asking to participate. People really care about this."
The idea for this mission came from Professor Mike Roggemann (ECE). "Mike said it would be really cool if someone could do this," King said.
Michigan Tech teams competed in earlier Nanosat competitions in 2005 and 2009, coming in third both times. "But the only one that matters is first, because that's the one that gets sponsored for a launch," King said.
Winning Nanosat isn't quite like a Super Bowl victory. "You get this fantastic news, but it comes on the back of a five-day effort, with the students working day and night," he said. Because the contest is so stressful, "it's hard to tell if they felt exhilaration or release."
Nanosat is exceptionally grueling for a college competition. "Reviewers come from all over government and industry, and they don't take it easy on the teams," he said. "If they see a flaw or have a question, they unload both barrels on the students and make them defend their design. They were expected to satisfy all the requirements of any satellite the air force launches."
Above all, Nanosat teaches students about engineering design, he said. "When they start, they think it's about the final product. Then they discover that design is really about accountability, proving that your design works and vigorously testing it. That's where we excelled," King said. "Our students know how to build things, know how to do hands-on design, and that was an advantage."
King counseled the team to accept their victory with quiet grace, but with limited success. "I told them, 'You get to the end zone, act like you've been there before.'" Restraint, however, was too much to ask of at least one student. "He said later, 'I don't care what you say, I'm dancing.'"