Each CubeSat is a mere 4- x 4- x 4-inch box weighing at most a kilogram (2.2 pounds)
Their modest but challenging 2001 space odyssey is the first step in a new program that UA and Stanford University faculty agree ultimately could send flotillas of scientifically productive mini-satellites as far as Mars.
Over the past few months, the UA Student Satellite Project (SSP) has been transformed into the UA Student Satellite Program, sponsored by the UA contingent of the Arizona Space Grant Consortium.
The new SSP will build a series of "CubeSats," tiny standardized spacecraft that can be designed, built, launched and operated in orbit by undergraduate students within one to a few semesters. Although each CubeSat is a mere 4- x 4- x 4-inch box weighing at most a kilogram (2.2 pounds), these space vehicles can be used for serious research.
The bold new initiative was born last summer out of frustration -- and in the last six weeks has caught on like wildfire.
UA faculty mentors and students have been working since 1997 on an ambitious satellite project called "UASat." But they lacked both steady financial support and launch opportunities, said UA physicist K.C. (Johnny) Hsieh, chief and founding mentor of SSP.
Last summer, Hsieh contacted Michael Drake about it. Drake directs the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, and also the Arizona Space Grant Consortium, a NASA-funded program that supports undergraduate research internships at the three state universities.
"Without funds and without a launch manifest, we were dead in the water," Drake said. Also, 4-year students would graduate before the UASat would be launched, so that by itself, UASat is not an ideal "student-driven, faculty-mentored undergraduate research experience, " he added.
Arizona Space Grant Consortium Associate Director Nilton Renno and Arizona Space Grant Coordinator Susan Brew in September asked Ray Umashankar to join the SSP to head fund-raising. As head of the space grant program on the UA campus, Renno is overall coordinator for SSP.
Umashankar directs the UA Multicultural Engineering Program and the university's new Virtual Development Center. The center is similar to centers at M.I.T. and Purdue, which are designed to bring more women into engineering but also have helped in fund-raising.
Umashankar said that many of his industry contacts are eager to bankroll projects and internships that train students -- their much-needed immediate and future workforce. But as keen as high-tech business is to provide technical workforce training, he added, projects must be realistically simple and short term, or feasibly structured, step by step, if longer term.
In San Diego in late September, Renno heard Stanford University engineer Bob Twiggs talk about his innovative small satellite program, including opportunities for university students to launch CubeSats into space beginning in November 2001.
Twiggs directs Stanford's Space Systems Development Laboratory, which last year joined with California Polytechnic State University in developing the first prototype CubeSats and supporting "P-Pod" launcher. More than a half-dozen groups in the United States and Japan are now involved in CubeSat programs.
Renno said he knew that CubeSats were a great idea for the evolving student satellite program, which by now UA faculty envisioned as a collaborative Arizona/Stanford program.
"The main thing we wanted was a way to have a better relationship with local high tech industry. We have a supply of students for summer internships -- and future jobs," Renno said.
In late October, Renno, Hsieh and Umashankar put in a conference call to Twiggs, inviting him to Tucson to talk on Stanford's innovative small satellite program, particularly the CubeSats. Twiggs made his presentation Friday that same week, Nov. 3.
By this time, program leaders were planning the satellite program along a "learn to crawl, learn to walk, learn to run and then to fly" principle, as Drake termed it. As students gain experience through successive launches, they would build progressively more complex satellite payloads.
UA physics and optical sciences Professor William H. Wing, mentor to UASat's laser communications team, proposed a first payload that could be built within the extremely short time to launch. His idea was for students to build an optical retroreflector system that was simple, potentially useful to science, and sure to succeed.
At the end of the meeting, Hsieh, Renno, Umashankar, Twiggs, UASat project manager Jon Alberding and UASat mentors agreed that UA and Stanford would collaborate in launching CubeSats.
Later that same day, as previously arranged because Drake was returning from a business trip to Tucson, Hsieh, Renno, Umashankar and Twiggs met Drake at the Tucson airport, a meeting they dubbed the Tucson Airport Space Forum.
While sitting in an airport restaurant, "We began to think about firing rockets into Earth orbit and the science you could do with a CubeSat," Drake said. "We now had several things. We had an inexpensive satellite that we ought to be able to get corporate sponsorship for. We had a satellite that could be built within one-to-two years, which is consistent with an undergraduate degree schedule. But I was concerned about the vision. Why would students find this exciting?"
Drake was suddenly struck with the seemingly brash, half-mad idea of sending CubeSats to Mars.
"The ultimate goal would be to fly 52 CubeSats to Mars," Drake said. "It would be the first time that student-built hardware would fly beyond Earth orbit."
52 is the target number because each state in the union, plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, has a NASA-funded space grant program. Each could be involved in building a CubeSat. Smaller programs could opt to partner with stronger space grant states like Arizona.
Renno asked Wing to draft the concept proposal.
Wing wrote feverishly through the next week. He delivered copies of the proposal, "CubeSat Flotillas for Mars," to Renno on Nov. 16, just an hour before Renno boarded a flight to Washington, D.C.
On Friday Nov. 17, Drake, Renno and Umashanker, as well as Twiggs and two of his California colleagues, were in Washington, D.C. to pitch the idea to NASA. (Hsieh had to miss the meeting because of university commitments.) They asked Julius Dasch and Scott Hubbard to support the concept. Dasch heads the nation's space grant program in the NASA Office of Education. Hubbard is Mars program coordinator at NASA headquarters. Drake is optimistic that NASA will support the idea.
Then the satellite program got a pivotal chunk of money: Mike Parker, the CEO of Rincon Research, volunteered to cover the approximately $50,000 cost of the November 2001 CubeSat launch. Rincon Research Corp., headquartered in Tucson, is a recognized leader in the field of digital signal processing research and development. Parker, a friend and colleague of Renno's, is a member of the Arizona Space Grant Consortium steering committee.
Parker's decision presaged more good news.
Last week, Alcatel Space Industries of France responded to a proposal that Umashankar, with Renno's help, literally wrote overnight on behalf of the student satellite program.
Alcatel Space, a leading supplier to satellite operators in the fields of telecommunications, science, Earth observation and air navigation, will be contributing $100,000 to fund two more CubeSat launches. More, it will be sending its chief technical officer to the UA to explore space nanotechnologies.
This could be the start a long-term research relationship and outstanding student internship opportunities, Umashankar said. Alcatel recently won the competition to supply a Mars orbiter in 2007 and "netlanders" preparatory to the NASA/European Space Agency 2009-2011 Mars sample return mission. The firm expects to receive the first contracts for this project in February 2001.
Just days ago, Umashankar added, the CEO of an optics start-up company in Silicon Valley pledged $25,000 as well as summer intern opportunities to support students working on CubeSat. Several more companies are arranging for stock transfers for student support, he added.
Students continue to work toward UASat preliminary design review. But late last week -- final exams week -- they began signing up for tasks toward CubeSat launch. A first preliminary design review is due this week. A second review and a critical review are due in February.
The compressed schedule calls for teams to complete flight and shelf models in May, test and debug them, then ship the flight model to Cal Poly in August. In September at Cal Poly, CubeSats will be installed in groups of three to a launcher. The launchers will be shipped in October to Utah-based One-Stop Satellite Services for installation in the multiple-payload adapter, which in turn will be shipped to Baikonur for November launch. Between 18 and 24 CubeSats will be shot into space from the former Soviet space launch facility at Kazakhstan.
Parker's Rincon Research has proposed another possible CubeSat payload, an electronics package with different radio receivers and transmitters. Elements of both proposals might be included in the first payloads, Wing said. Wing, who convinced student team mentors that November 2001 launch was feasible when he presented a more developed optical retroreflector payload proposal at their meeting Nov. 9, is principal investigator for the first CubeSat.
In the future, students will propose payloads as well as build them for launch, and successive payloads will have greater science capabilities, Wing said.
An important new facet to the Student Satellite Program is that it will be organized as a laboratory class, where students receive graded course credit for responsibilities they fulfill on deadline, working one or two students per mentor, he added. "This will also operate like a skunkworks. Students will work as needed as part of a structured organization that supports them," he added. "We will be experimental. We will keep what works and throw out what doesn't."
While the first payloads may be simple, they will not be trivial to achieve, program faculty said.
"Learning how to get something into orbit and how to have it produce science is not trivial," Wing said.
"Students learning to work together as a team, and learning as a team how to work with other teams so that the integrated whole is greater than the sum of its parts is an important achievement, " Drake said. "That's what it's like out there in the real world."