University of Texas at Austin

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Student research: Fastrac satellite to launch

Current members of the FASTRAC team and their adviser, Prof. Glenn Lightsey, middle row, far right.

Current members of the FASTRAC team and their adviser, Prof. Glenn Lightsey, middle row, far right.

A satellite designed and built by engineering students from the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin is to be launched. The scheduled date is Nov. 19, 2010.

The launch comes seven years after a group of engineering students entered a competition to build a satellite and five years after the students’ design was chosen. About 150 students have participated in the project.

The latest information on the project is on the Cockrell School of Engineering Web site.

What follows is a story from several years ago describing the project.

Fast track to space

They are the size of car tires, weigh 28 pounds each and are shaped like a six-sided box. They sit on a table in Woolrich Hall on The University of Texas at Austin campus.

One is covered in shiny gold thermal mylar, which makes it look like a wrapped-up birthday present. The other is a steel frame, having been disassembled so the parts can be cleaned and replaced, if necessary.

They are satellites, designed and built by a team of University of Texas at Austin students, being prepped for a trip to space.

In 2006 the satellites will be dancing in orbit moving in response to each other and communicating with each other and stations on the ground.

They earned the ride into space by winning a satellite-building contest in January 2005. The sponsors are the U.S. Air Force, NASA and the American Institute of Aeronautics.

The Texas team was one of 13 from colleges and universities competing to receive $100,000 to design and build a satellite. With the win comes another $100,000 to get the satellites ready for their journey.

The project requires more than engineering skills, though those are at the forefront. It also calls for business acumen, negotiating savvy and construction know-how.

In short, the team, made up of students at the undergraduate, master’s and Ph.D. levels, became the collegiate version of an aerospace company.

Students did the design, procured the parts, assembled the satellites, wrote the documentation, conferred with the client and met deadlines. All while taking full loads of classes and living the lives of college students.

“It takes on all the elements of a real spacecraft project,” said Greg Holt, a Ph.D. student in aerospace engineering and team leader. “You have everything from the engineers who do the design and people who handle the documentation. We had to develop all these roles and develop all these skills.”

Emily Burrough, a fourth-year student with a double major in Plan II and aerospace engineering, said that’s what she’s done. She started out at the soldering station, where most newcomers to the project start. Then she found a manufacturer for a propellant tank for the thruster system.

“My next project will be testing of the GPS (global positioning system) receiver and doing benchmark testing to make sure that it gets accurate readings,” she said.

The team also created its own clean room, where it could assemble the satellites in a non-contaminated environment. The room is enclosed in sheets of plastic and purified air is blown into it. You must wear a gown and gloves to enter. There’s even a blower to knock dust off before you step in.

The project

The FASTRAC satellite under construction.

The FASTRAC satellite under construction.

The project demonstrates three elements of “flying formation satellites.” They are satellites that are much smaller than normal and fly in synch with each other. The competition’s sponsors were looking for satellites to demonstrate the concept.

The future of satellites, said Professor Glenn Lightsey, one of the team’s advisers, is groups of small satellites that work together instead of a single large one. With such groups, researchers can add to a project’s scale by sending additional satellites with the same goal and budgets can be reduced because the chance of failure drops if one satellite breaks and an automatic backup remains in flight.

The project will show how the satellites can move in relation to each other, talk to each other and with stations on the ground. That’s where the project’s name, FASTRAC, comes from. It stands for Formation Autonomous Spacecraft with Thrust, Relnav (relative navigation), Attitude and Crosslink.

The project is to demonstrate three technologies.

The first is the GPS relative navigation.

“We have the satellites tracking each other,” Holt said. “We have a cross link to communicate with each other and a navigant. They tell not only the relative position, but the relative attitudes as well.”

The second technology is a micro-discharge plasma thruster, which adjusts the position of the satellites while in orbit.

“It’s very small, low-power rocket fuel that uses a plasma fuel instead of the traditional chemical fuel,” he said. “It’s a nice light-weight, low-power unit that can be used for these small satellites.”

The third element is a worldwide ground tracking network. People at universities in California, Hawaii and Australia have agreed to track the satellites.

Building them

Before they decided all that, the team members got into the final round of the competition on the strength of the flying formation concept. “Satellite formations was definitely a hot, up-and-coming topic,” Holt said.

When the concept was accepted, they had to figure out exactly what to make. They brainstormed and went through “whiteboard after whiteboard,” going over ideas.

“We turned that into some rough sketches and we developed that into real models we could do analysis on,” Holt said. “So for the first six months we hardly touched a wrench.”

As they settled on a design, they found out that $100,000 doesn’t go a long way.

“We found out very quickly that spaceflight hardware doesn’t come cheap, especially things that have gone through certification and testing processes,” he said.

They bought many parts in electronics stores. Some parts of the communications system, some of the wiring and the electrical connectors, “they were off the shelf,” Holt said.

They also used ham radio equipment “just like you would find in a tinkerer’s backyard shack,” Holt said. They modified it to operate in space and increase transmitting power.

It was not only cheaper, but it extends the scope of the project.

“We’re going to be utilizing that as part of our mission to expand the amount of return data that we’re going to get because anyone in the world with ham radio equipment will be able to track our satellite and download data from it,” Holt said.

The GPS system, however, is a critical component.

“There were a lot of things we wanted direct control over, things we needed to be very customized on our GPS systems,” he said. “We built that from scratch.”

Finding manufacturers were research projects in themselves.

“You send out a whole bunch of e-mails and you call them and solicit them and try to get them to do it for as cheap as possible,” Burrough said. “You bargain with them, basically. Some of them get real excited with you, that it’s a student project or some of them want to see something they do get put in space so it’s equally exciting for the manufacturer.”

Holt managed the project, making sure the parts were on schedule. When something fell behind, he’d join the team for some hands-on work and help get things back on track.

The team tested components as they came together and then it was time to test the entire system.

“We turned it all on for the first time,” Holt said. “The very first time we saw the communication message coming from the satellite, ‘FASTRAC SATELLITE SAFE MODE GO HORNS,’ we all had a sigh of relief.”

Aiming high

The university’s graduate aerospace program is in the top 10 nationally and winning the competition reinforces that, Lightsey said.

“There is also the opportunity to gain expertise and ultimately field a research center to develop technology for satellites,” he said. “We hope that FASTRAC will permanently improve our capability to perform space missions and research for organizations like NASA and the Air Force.”

The students’ dedication throughout the project was apparent to Lightsey.

“Even as the problems changed, the one constant was the students’ commitment to see the project succeed,” he said.

Some performers might be motivated by seeing their names in lights. The FASTRAC team members were spurred by seeing their work in space.

“Everybody was devoting above and beyond the amount of time expected,” Holt said. “They were working toward the goal of seeing something they had built with their own hands into space. I think that motivated us quite a bit.”

Burrough agreed.

“By doing a hands-on project and actually building something and seeing it all the way through and hopefully seeing it go up, it’s completely rewarding,” she said. “Your thoughts and ideas get manifested in front of you. You see it happen. It’s definitely fulfilling. It makes you want to do more.”

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» Student research: Fastrac satellite to launch



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