John Christian, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at West Virginia University, will lead one of 13 university teams selected by NASA for collaborative projects to develop and demonstrate new technologies and capabilities for small spacecraft known as SmallSats.
The selected teams will work with engineers and scientists from six different NASA centers with a goal to transform small spacecraft, some of which weigh only a few kilograms, into powerful but affordable tools for science, exploration and space operations.
Christian heads up WVU’s newly created Applied Space Exploration Laboratory, which is housed in the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, and performs research in space systems design and aerospace vehicle navigation. He will be working with a team of researchers from Marquette University and NASA’s Johnson Space Center on this project, which will begin this fall and last about two years.
Small satellites, according to Christian, have become popular in recent years due to their low cost, low mass and relative simplicity. These advantages, however, come with some challenges.
“SmallSats have tight constraints on mass, power and volume that can severely limit the scope of the missions they can perform,” said Christian. “This challenge has led to some fantastic research in miniaturizing traditional spacecraft systems by researchers across the country.
“In the area of spacecraft navigation, which is the ‘bread-and-butter’ of the research programs in the ASEL, we noticed that the inertial measurements units or IMUs commonly flown on traditional spacecraft are too big and use too much power to be used on SmallSats,” Christian continued. “Together with our partners from Marquette University and NASA, we will work to address this problem by combining clusters of many small, low-cost inertial sensors into one effective IMU specifically designed for use on SmallSats. While each of these low-cost sensors has relatively poor performance by itself, we aim to show that a cluster of these sensors may produce performance comparable to a single high-performance IMU. The end result will be a new inertial navigation system that will enable SmallSats to tackle more aggressive missions.”
According to NASA, results from these projects could lead to the development of miniature radio and navigation devices, a low-power laser communications concept and radiation-tolerant computers. Additional emerging concepts could include energy storage devices and electric propulsion for deep space missions.
“There is a vibrant small spacecraft community within America’s universities and with this initiative NASA seeks to increase our collaboration with that community,” said Andrew Petro, program executive for NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program. “The universities will benefit from the extensive experience NASA has in space research and technology, and NASA will benefit from fresh ideas and cost-conscious innovation at the universities.”