NASA to Launch Two Small AE Satellites

2012-02-22

Two spacecraft developed by AE faculty members are among the 33 small satellites the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has selected to fly as auxiliary payloads aboard rockets planned for launching in 2013 and 2014.

One craft is a solar sail demonstration called “CubeSail,” and the other is a remote sensing satellite called “LAICE,” according to AE Prof. Victoria L. Coverstone.

Researchers hope that CubeSail will make significant strides towards technical goals for solar sails that NASA’s In-Space Propulsion Roadmap has set to be achieved by the end of this decade.

Developing the CubeSail research are AE Prof. Victoria Coverstone, AE Emeritus Prof. Rodney Burton, ECE Prof. Gary Swenson, and David L. Carroll, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Champaign, Illinois, aerospace tech company, CU Aerospace.
Developing the CubeSail research are AE Prof. Victoria Coverstone, AE Emeritus Prof. Rodney Burton, ECE Prof. Gary Swenson, and David L. Carroll, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Champaign, Illinois, aerospace tech company, CU Aerospace.

NASA has long regarded solar sail technology as high payoff, high risk.

The payoff is desirable because solar photons are the primary propellant, resulting in very high payload fractions (~60%), lower spacecraft mass, and lower launch costs than those that chemical or electric systems can provide. Also, solar sails having large sail area allow for significantly larger accelerations compared to equal mass electric propulsion systems, resulting in faster missions.

The impracticality of conducting ground-based life cycle testing of a complete solar sail system in a 1-g field, however, makes the risk factor high. AE’s CubeSail demonstration aims to reduce the risks for the “UltraSail” interplanetary and interstellar mission concept, and increase the crafts’ technology readiness level.

CubeSail gives graduate and undergraduate students the opportunity to work directly with all aspects of real satellites and operations. Through a Cubesat class that AE and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) jointly teaches, students have helped upgrade the CubeSail hardware, finish the software, and perform space qualification testing. Students will also help provide ground support during and after the launch.

Working on the LAICE satellite research project are AE Prof. Victoria Coverstone, ECE Prof. Gary Swenson, ECE Associate Prof. Jonathan J. Makela, Prof. Gregory Earle of Virginia Tech, and David L. Carroll, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Champaign, Illinois, aerospace tech company, CU Aerospace.
Working on the LAICE satellite research project are AE Prof. Victoria Coverstone, ECE Prof. Gary Swenson, ECE Associate Prof. Jonathan J. Makela, Prof. Gregory Earle of Virginia Tech, and David L. Carroll, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Champaign, Illinois, aerospace tech company, CU Aerospace.
 Funds from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program have supported the building of CubeSail’s hardware. CU Aerospace, a local, private business and the prime contractor on the SBIR program, will use internal research and development funds to support launch activities.  

Students also have been involved in the LAICE small satellite project, developed through the joint AE-ECE CubeSat class.

The LAICE project, an initiative in upper atmospheric research, has two goals:

  • To demonstrate a unique magnetic torqueing altitude control system that constrains the satellite in a fixed altitude.
  • To demonstrate and acquire in situ measurements of neutral and ion density properties in the altitude region from 150 to 325 kilometers; and to remotely sense wave parameters between 90 and 100 kilometers as the waves move upward from the lower atmosphere into the ionosphere.

The LAICE project hopes to reveal new information about the neutral ion coupling processes in the 150 to 325 kilometer atmospheric region. The phenomenon has led to ionospheric instabilities that disrupt communication and global positioning system (GPS) signals.