WRITTEN BY MIKENNA PIEROTTI
ILLUSTRATION BY BRAD STALNAKER AND ELIZABETH ROTH
Wait for a dark, clear night. Go outside. And look up. It won’t take long before you start to notice them. Like impossibly fast stars, they glow steadily as they follow the arc of the sky. Measuring our atmosphere, tracking our weather, guiding us through traffic, warning us of danger and sending our messages around the world — currently there are more than 1,200 of these endlessly orbiting sentinels, which we call satellites, floating just outside the deadly drag of our planetary gravity. And they’ve become essential to modern life.
Since 1957, when Sputnik 1 made its first rotation around the earth at speeds greater than 18,000 miles per hour, humans have been relying on satellite technology to go where we can’t and see what we don’t.
And now West Virginia will add its first sentry to the horizon thanks to a collaboration between WVU, NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation program, the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium and TMC Technologies in Fairmont, W.Va. The satellite will launch via the NASA CubeSat Launch Initiative Educational Launch of Nanosatellites program and is currently scheduled to lift off in June 2017.
As part of the White House initiative to launch 50 small satellites from all 50 states, West Virginia is the first state chosen to launch a satellite out of 21 other “rookie states” that have not yet participated in a NASA satellite program.
Dubbed Simulation-to-Flight 1 or STF-1, the satellite will demonstrate software that simulates spacecraft hardware so engineers can perform accurate tests that will help them predict how spacecraft will perform in certain conditions, produce high-value science data on things like space weather, give graduate and undergraduate WVU students the opportunity to work on real-world — and really cool — challenges and promote STEM education to the next generation of rocket scientists throughout the state. That’s a lot of results from something about the size of a bread loaf.
And because the STF-1 satellite is one of a growing number of what are called CubeSats — a type of miniaturized satellite — it will do all this for much less than the cost of a traditional satellite.
“A CubeSat’s small size allows NASA to launch many of them into space as secondary payloads,” said Jason Gross, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at WVU.
He’s part of one of four teams of faculty and students working on innovative software and hardware experiments that will go inside the satellite.
“The CubeSat concept is opening up access to space. It’s lowering the entry toll for organizations like universities to start up space research projects,” Gross said. “It’s an exciting time.”
Bigger on the Inside
While the satellite’s exterior, solar panel system and infrastructure, built and integrated by NASA IV&V, is impressive, inside is where the magic happens. STF-1 will house a handful of WVU-designed subsystems and experiments that will do everything from test the effect of radiation on unprotected electronics in space to study space weather and its effect on technology. One of these experiments might even improve how small satellites orient themselves in space and help pave the way for more CubeSat research missions.
To do this, Gross teamed up with assistant professor John Christian and a class of 22 students to create an experiment that will use global positioning systems and inertial measurement, and hardware and software to improve the accuracy of CubeSat orbit and attitude determination. They hope their findings will make miniature satellites even more useful in the future.
“There are a lot of mission types that require accurate orbit determination,” Gross said. “Some day scientists may want to use a swarm of these small satellites to measure sea surface height or monitor the ionosphere. But in order to do that reliably, we need to know the exact height of the spacecraft from the Earth’s surface.
Jeremy Dawson, an associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering involved with the mission, said the experience has more personal rewards for the students.
“The satellite mission gets the students involved in a real engineering application with deadlines, a rigorous schedule and development process — similar to what they’ll find in their future jobs,” Dawson said.
“And they’re all really excited to see something they helped create travel on a rocket into outer space.”
Even though STF-1’s mission will last only about three months, after which it will slowly succumb to Earth’s gravity and burn up as it re-enters our atmosphere, its impact will be felt for years.
“Once we show we can deliver something like this, it opens the door for other space missions,” Dawson said. “It helps with recruitment, not just for WVU but for all STEM programs. I can imagine high school, middle school — even elementary school kids — looking at this mission and getting inspired.”