A group of undergraduate University of Washington students have completed the initial design for a nanosatellite that will study the earth’s ionosphere and experiment with flying in precise formation with other satellites, a relatively new area of study that scientists say could pave the way for the next generation of aerospace endeavors.
The students presented their design on Tuesday to representatives of Primex Aerospace Co. of Redmond, a leader in space propulsion systems that is collaborating with the university on the project.
“This is the first opportunity our undergraduate students have ever had to work on hardware that will actually fly in space,” said Mark Campbell, assistant professor in the department of aeronautics and astronautics and coordinator of the nanosatellite project. “I know of universities that have been working on projects 10 years or more and can’t get them launched. Part of our agreement with the Air Force includes a launch. We’re very fortunate to be able to involve undergraduate students in a project of this caliber.
The satellite, dubbed “Dawgstar,” is scheduled for launch in November 2001, probably as part of a space shuttle mission.
The nanosatellite project is intended to encourage universities to work together in exploring low-cost alternatives to large, expensive satellites. Nanosatellites, because of their smaller size, are cheaper to build. Their low weight will also make them less expensive to launch, a major factor because the cost of a space shuttle launch begins at about $1 million. Launches into orbit aboard unmanned vehicles are even more expensive.
UW is coordinating its efforts with Utah State University and Virginia Tech, both of which are also building nanosatellites to fly with the UW’s Dawgstar. The mission’s two main objectives are:
? A scientific study of disturbances in the earth’s ionosphere. Such disturbances can play a significant role in disrupting communications among networked satellites and with sites on the ground. A better understanding of ionospheric disturbances will be essential in managing groups of nanosatellites in earth orbit and operating space-based radar systems.
? Experiments in precision formation flying with the satellites from Utah State and Virginia Tech. The nanosatellites will attempt to fly and maneuver in concert to tolerances of a millimeter or less.
“This is the most exciting part for me,” Campbell said. “Precise formation flying is necessary to take advantage of the numerous applications for these satellites.” Those uses include next-generation Internet applications, space-based radar and ultra-powerful space telescopes.
In an address last month on the UW campus, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin said much of the future of the U.S. space effort lies in the development of nanosatellite technology. He envisioned a giant space telescope composed of a group of small networked satellites, positioned beyond the solar system’s asteroid belt to avoid the interference of cosmic matter. Such a network would have to fly in formation to tolerances of within a nanometer – a fraction of the width of a human hair.
“That’s work that we’re doing here at the UW,” Campbell said. “We’re among those doing initial research into formation flying and autonomy that could make such systems a reality.”
With the initial design complete, the UW nanosatellite project will shift to mostly graduate students, who will purchase components and begin to build and test the actual satellite. Several of the undergraduate students will be continuing on to graduate school and working on the project. In addition to the two main mission objectives, the Dawgstar will also test a new technology. A likely candidate is a prototype microthruster being designed in conjunction with Primex. The Dawgstar will be the only satellite of the three with thruster technology, according to Campbell.
The project is being funded through grants from the Air Force, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and NASA.
For more information, Campbell can be reached at (206) 543-6725 or at http://www.aa.washington.edu/faculty/campbell/campbell.html.