High above Earth in the darkness of space, more than 100 miniature cube satellites, or CubeSats, orbit the planet in a silent ballet. The state of West Virginia is about to join the dance for the first time with the help of a new collaboration between West Virginia University, NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation program, the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium and TMC Technologies in Fairmont.
As part of the White House Maker Initiative, NASA aims to launch 50 small satellites from all 50 states in the next five years. West Virginia is the first of 21 “rookie states” that have not previously participated in NASA’s CubeSat program to be chosen. This will also be the first time a mission from West Virginia will orbit Earth. It is slated to launch as an auxiliary payload on a NASA rocket in mid-2016 through NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative program.
“This is a major step for our institution and our state,” said Majid Jaridi, director of the consortium and professor of industrial and management systems engineering in the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources. “An activity of this scale helps build WVU’s reputation in the fields of astronautics, physics and space and helps expand interest and opportunities in science and technology throughout the state.”
WVU’s close partnership with NASA’s IV&V program was fundamental to the development and planning process. Additionally, experiments and subsystems will be manufactured in labs and clean rooms on campus, while NASA’s IV&V will integrate all the parts and build the bus, which interconnects all of the modules.
“The collaboration with NASA IV&V has been invaluable in developing an opportunity to demonstrate our expertise, ability to collaborate, ability to gather resources and manage a mission of this caliber,” Jaridi said.
“WVU is advancing rapidly in space-related research and this mission is an important milestone along the path to a vibrant space research program,” said Earl Scime, associate vice president for research. “Space research involves scientists from a wide array of disciplines and with our regional partners it is exciting to see that West Virginia now has the necessary skills and knowledge to put together a complete space mission.”
“My own research group is developing a new type of instrument for space missions and once West Virginia has flown this CubeSat we will have the capability for even more ambitious space missions,” Scime said.
CubeSats are small, but have high impact. They are built using off-the-shelf components, which make them low-cost methods to build and conduct research in a space environment.
The WVU and NASA IV&V mission, called Simulation-to-Flight 1 or STF-1, will demonstrate advanced emulation technologies, produce high-value science data and promote STEM education throughout the state of West Virginia. Undergraduate and graduate students working on the project will enhance their skills with real-world engineering challenges.
“This is a unique opportunity for students,” Jaridi said. “They are going to learn firsthand what it takes to meet the demands and expectations of a NASA mission.”
“Collaboration with WVU and the West Virginia Space Grant Consortium provides a unique opportunity for students to design, build and test a complete spacecraft mission from early concept planning to mission operations,” said Justin Morris, NASA’s IV&V program STF-1 project manager.
“The STF-1 CubeSat provides a unique opportunity for NASA’s IV&V program to demonstrate the value of our simulation technologies in the small satellite arena,” he said.
The CubeSat will be roughly the size of a loaf of bread. Its primary goal will be to demonstrate the capabilities of the software-only simulation environments developed at NASA’s IV&V program to better support current and future NASA missions. It will also contain experiments from faculty in the WVU computer science and electrical engineering, physics and astronomy and mechanical and aerospace engineering departments.
Performance and durability of III-V nitride-based materials
Dimitris Korakakis, professor of computer science and electrical engineering, in collaboration with Jeremy Dawson, research assistant professor of computer science and electrical engineering, will build an experiment to study the effect of radiation on electronics – nitride-based LEDs and photo detectors – when they are minimally protected in space.
Onboard the CubeSat will be an array of LEDs and photodetectors manufactured at WVU. Typically, electronic devices aboard spacecraft are shielded to protect them from the harsh space environment, but WVU’s CubeSat will contain no shielding in order to measure how and when the electronics are effective.
Korakakis explained that LEDs are used with haptics – the sense of touch that depends on the perception of closeness – for space robotics. LEDs allow robotic devices to identify distances at very close range that cameras cannot detect, so their reliability and capacity to maintain consistent strength is important.
“We understand how these devices work in lab simulations on Earth,” Korakakis said. “Our goal is to test their operation and endurance in space – a hazardous vacuum full of radiation, magnetic forces and extreme temperatures. If the findings show that these devices can operate without shielding, it could improve design and make satellites lighter.”
Magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling and space weather
Dimitris Vassiliadis, research associate professor of physics and astronomy in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, will be conducting experiments related to space weather activities that occur in geospace, Earth’s space environment.
Space weather refers to conditions on the sun and in space that can influence technology such as spacecraft and cellular phone satellites as well as power-grid systems on Earth.
Vassiliadis plans to correlate data collected on solar-produced disturbances with computer simulations of Earth’s ionosphere and of its space weather effects.
“These small satellites allow us to measure particles and geomagnetic fields so that we can capture disturbances in the space environment,” he said. “This provides both an opportunity for us to better understand highly complex processes in near-Earth space and to put in a broader context what the CubeSat is experiencing in orbit.”
Vassiliadis also coordinates WVU’s RockSat program, which provides students with the opportunity to plan, build and test a real scientific payload that is launched into the upper atmosphere on sounding rockets.
GPS and IMU hardware and experiments
John Christian and Jason Gross, assistant professors of mechanical and aerospace engineering, will be using global positioning systems and inertial measurement unit, or IMU, hardware and software to improve the accuracy of CubeSat orbit and attitude determination.
Gross, who previously worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said that CubeSats are becoming a more viable platform for conducting rigorous scientific research, so there is a need to provide more accurate orbit determination.
“The challenge is that with a spacecraft of this form factor – which can be as small as a Rubik’s Cube – that is flying at high speeds, even small errors in estimates of its orbit could impact a science investigation, but that the available onboard power resources are too constrained to use systems that are typically flown on larger spacecraft” Gross said. “Our goal is to push the envelope for the orbit determination of CubeSats.”
Christian, who worked at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, explained that IMUs contain accelerometers and gyroscopes that assist with spacecraft navigation by reporting changes in acceleration and rotation at very high data rates. These sensors provide a spacecraft with information that is very much analogous to how the human inner ear can help us sense movement even when our eyes are closed.
He said that launching a CubeSat is a significant milestone in the development of WVU and West Virginia’s track record in space.
“Spaceflight is complex and often the first step is the hardest,” Christian said. “This mission sets the stage for future opportunities, positioning WVU and the state for even bigger things in the future.”
The pre-flight tests and launch will be provided by NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative program. The mission development, which is a total commitment of more than $200,000 plus manpower, is funded by NASA’s IV&V, WVU and the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium. The work is also being completed in collaboration with manpower and test facilities from TMC Technologies and Orbital ATK.