After three years of work, University of Washington students have nearly completed the world’s smallest self-propelled satellite and are preparing to deliver it to the Air Force and NASA for launch.
The nanosatellite, dubbed “Dawgstar” and tentatively scheduled for launch from the Space Shuttle in early 2003, will take samples from the Earth’s ionosphere and conduct experiments in formation flying with two other satellites, an ability scientists say is vital for the next generation of space endeavors.
But one of the best parts of the project is that students played a primary role in designing and building the compact piece of space hardware, according to Adjunct Professor Mark Campbell, coordinator of the effort.
“It’s very unusual for students, particularly undergraduates, to have an opportunity to work on something that is actually going into space,” said Campbell, who recently left the UW for Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and is coordinating the final stages of the project long-distance. “This isn’t a class exercise – it’s the real thing and they’re getting great experience by being part of it.”
The nanosatellite project is intended to encourage universities to work together to explore low-cost alternatives to large, expensive satellites. Nanosatellites, because of their small size, are cheaper to build. Their low weight makes for less expensive launches – a major factor, considering that the cost of a Space Shuttle launch starts at about
$1 million. Launches aboard unmanned vehicles are even costlier.
Dawgstar resembles a small six-sided box, measuring 18 inches across and 12 inches high, and weighing less than 40 pounds. It will fly with companion satellites from Utah State University and Virginia Tech. Dawgstar, with the aid of eight tiny plasma thrusters, is the primary craft capable of maneuvering itself. The Virginia Tech craft, which is larger than Dawgstar, will fly with two thrusters built by the UW team, providing partial mobility. The mission’s two main objectives are:
- Conducting a scientific study of disturbances in the Earth’s ionosphere. Such disturbances can cause significant disruption in 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.
- Performing experiments in precision formation flying with the satellites from Utah State and Virginia Tech. The satellites will fly about 1 to 3 miles apart and will attempt to maneuver in concert to tolerances of 33 feet or less. The ability of small satellites to fly in precise formation could make possible a wide array of new applications, including a next-generation Internet, space-based radar and ultra-powerful space telescopes.
The project culminates three years of work by more than 75 undergraduate and graduate students and is being funded through grants from the Air Force, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The launch is being coordinated through the Air Force Space Test Program.
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