Undergraduate Teams Building First Tech NanoSatellite

SOCORRO, N.M. January 24, 2012 – More than a dozen New Mexico Tech juniors and seniors are building a nanosatellite expected to fly into space in 2013.

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This experiment successfully was launched into suborbital flight in April 2011 by mechanical engineering students from New Mexico Tech. The Tech nanosatellite will be launched into orbit in 2013.
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The exterior of the April 2011 space test. The 2013 nanosatellite will be similar in size and look.
Students from electrical engineering and mechanical engineering are building a small satellite with five sensing instruments aboard, thanks to a $25,000 grant from New Mexico EPSCoR. New Mexico Tech pitched in another $24,000 to help the team purchase specialized satellite gear and components.

The faculty advisors are Dr. Anders Jorgensen of Electrical Engineering and Dr.  Andrei Zagrai of Mechanical Engineering.

Zagrai oversaw a Senior Design Clinic team that launched a sub-orbital payload in April 2011. The new nanosatellite will include a revised version of a structural health monitoring system and four new experiments designed by electrical and mechanical engineering students.

“Although the nanosatellite project is entirely new to New Mexico Tech, it includes a technology that is a continuation of our efforts in structural health monitoring for space vehicles from last year,” Zagrai said. “We were thinking about our own New Mexico Tech satellite for several years, but it was not until two departments joined efforts that this project became feasible.”

Jorgensen will lead the space weather and electrical engineering efforts, as well as serve as general manager of the project. Zagrai will be responsible for mechanical systems and structural health monitoring.

“Tech is known for its contribution to the field of spacecraft structural health monitoring,” Zagrai said. “We conducted lab work on simple and realistic structures, then, last year, we passed the system for suborbital flight. Now, we’re building a real satellite.”

About a dozen students from the two departments will work on this project. Zagrai said he hasn’t selected the students yet because the grant was just formalized last week. Five students helped draft the 10-page proposal.

Mechanical engineering senior Jordan Klepper said he’s looking forward to the challenge.

“New Mexico Tech has never built a satellite before,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of mixing of departments. We’re going to have to interact well as a team. Plus, we’re putting something into space. That, in itself, will be a task.”

Jorgensen was the advisor for a directed study team that designed and built a plasma experiment in 2011 that will soon launch on Swedish satellite, in collaboration with the Air Force Research Lab in Albuquerque. Another team of electrical engineering seniors is working on another plasma probe for a Boston University student team that is building another nanosatellite.

The five experiments on the New Mexico Tech nanosatellite are divided into two packages with two teams. The engineering package includes the structural health monitoring system and the electrical health monitoring system.

The science package includes the plasma experiment, a magnetometer and a dosimeter.

Each team will include students from Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Departments.

“This works well because electrical engineers don’t know that much about mechanical engineering and mechanical engineers don’t know that much about electrical engineering,” Jorgensen said.

Matt Landavazo volunteered for the plasma experiment as a junior last year. Now, as a senior, he is leading a design team in electrical engineering that is collaborating with mechanical engineers on the structural health experiment.

“These projects open up learning opportunities and hands-on practical experience opportunities before students reach their design classes,” Landavazo said.

In addition to the five sensing experiments, the satellite will have five other major components: the satellite body, solar panels to provide power, the CPU, a radio to transmit data and a bar magnet that will control the satellite’s attitude. The two teams will not only design the experiments, but the students will also be responsible for constructing the entire satellite.

“The students have to solve a lot of problems,” Jorgensen said. “We’ve put the students in charge. They’re organizing themselves … with our guidance, leadership and money.”

The satellite must be able to survive up to 10G’s, must weigh less than 5 kilograms and must fit in a 4-inch by 4-inch by 12-inch body.

“It’s not a huge thing. It has to fit in a small package,” Klepper said. “And you get only one shot so it has to work the first time.”

One novel aspect of the entire sensing system will be the use of plug-and-play architecture. Jorgensen said that nearly all satellite designers spend an inordinate amount of time, money and effort on the interfaces between various parts of the components.

“Our idea is that there should be an easy way,” Jorgensen said. “Everyday consumer electronics connect seamlessly. Why not use that approach on a satellite?”

Jim Lyke of the Air Force Research Lab, or AFRL, is a pioneer of this approach – making satellites plug-and-play. Jorgensen worked with Lyke on the Swedish satellite sensor and is continuing to work with New Mexico Tech on the NMTSat project.

“NMTSat will be all plug-and-play,” Jorgensen said. “All the instruments and parts will have simple, standard instruments that are self-describing – like a mouse or a camera plugging into a USB. They identify themselves as a mouse or a camera. The master CPU will recognize it as such and understand how to communicate with it.”

Zagrai said the developments under way at Tech have a wide application as space travel becomes more common and more affordable.

In 2010, the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, created the Air Transportation Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation, of which New Mexico Tech is a contributing member.

Zagrai said the FAA is interested in developing a standard “black box,” similar to the recording devices used on commercial aircraft.

“That’s where we see our future,” Zagrai said. “We are developing a spacecraft condition monitoring package that will provide NASA and the FAA – and any other interested party – with a system that could improve the safety of space flight.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech