CubeSat could put KU in orbit

Lawrence,KS (03-05-2005)

From Lawrence Journal-World
By Terry Rombeck

Marco Villa is hoping to take some digital photographs of Kansas -- from 435 miles above the earth.

Villa, a graduate student from Italy, is leading a team of Kansas University students attempting to launch the first satellite wholly designed and built in this state.

"That's what we're aiming for," Villa said of the photographs. "That would be so exciting. Imagine the good PR for KU."

The KU satellite is a far cry from the massive orbiters often deployed by NASA.

Instead, the $8,000 satellite -- called a CubeSat -- is no bigger than a small box of tissues. It measures just 10 centimeters on each side and weighs 2.2 pounds, and it is built with many off-the-shelf electronics.

The project is part of a new wave of university-built satellites. About 40 are in production; six have been launched, with mixed results.

The idea for the KU project came about 2 1/2 years ago from Trevor Sorensen, a professor of aerospace engineering. He had considered embarking on a larger satellite project.

"Kansas does have experience building satellite payloads, and we've done part of satellites," Sorensen said. "But we've not done the whole thing. I wanted something to get students experience. CubeSats looked perfect for that."

The satellite, which students named Pathfinder, will include a digital camera and equipment to measure space radiation. It will be powered by solar panels and rechargeable lithium batteries, and KU scientists will be able to control the craft and get readings from Nichols Hall.

The radiation detectors onboard will be a new variety that haven't been extensively tested in space, which has drawn interest from the Jet Propulsion Lab at NASA.

Villa said he hoped future KU projects could draw full NASA funding. The current project has been paid for by a variety of sources, including satellite manufacturer Swales and the Kansas Space Grant Consortium.

"That's what we're aiming for," Villa said of the NASA sponsorship. "We're trying to show them we do the things the right way and keep them in the loop."

Plans call for the satellite -- along with thirteen others like it -- to be launched in mid-May from Kazakhstan, aboard a Russian rocket formerly used as an intercontinental ballistic missile.

The satellite will orbit for about seven years before re-entering the atmosphere. Villa said he expected the equipment onboard to work for about three years.

He said he thought CubeSats could be the future of satellite technology, because they are cheaper and simpler to build and usually include equipment to perform only one or two tasks, with little chance for interference.

He said the team, which has included 20 students since 2002, is excited about takeoff.

"I personally can't wait," Villa said. "In May I should graduate -- what better present for me?"

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