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NASA selects student satellite for space launch

Satellite aims to promote local student interest in space exploration through interaction

By 2017, people will be able to look into space and see a satellite created by Brown students shining as brightly as the North Star.

The satellite, or “CubeSat,”  is a 10-centimeter-cubed satellite “about the size and weight of a grapefruit,” said Hannah Varner ’14, one of the leaders of the CubeSat project.

On Feb. 6, NASA announced that the Brown CubeSat, titled EQUISat, was chosen along with 16 others to be launched into space. The project will most likely launch in the summer of 2017, co-leader Tyler Del Sesto ’14 said.

The project was originally founded in 2011 with the help of team adviser Rick Fleeter ’76 PhD’81, adjunct associate professor in the School of Engineering, with the goal of making space and satellites more interesting and accessible to the average person.

EQUISat is covered in LED lights so it is visible to the naked eye and can transmit radio signals so it can be used for communication, meaning anyone can interact with it on their own without special equipment. Team members hope these features will spark interest in space ­— a sometimes inaccessible scientific topic.

Co-founder Alex Carrere ’12 said he was “obviously very, very excited” when he got a call from fellow founder Max Monn ’12 GS, a former Herald photo editor, who told him the satellite had been approved for launch.  “I did a couple of jump-up-and-downs. It’s been a real dream come true for us.”


Preparing for lift off 

To be chosen by NASA for a launch, the current leaders of the group had to prove to two different review boards — one for technology and one for merit — that EQUISat is feasible and worthwhile, Varner said.

After winning the review boards’ approval, both review boards and the team all separately wrote to NASA to advocate for the satellite, she added.

In total, it took the group leaders two months to apply for the launch, Del Sesto said. “It was quite a process.”

Though the team now has an approved launch time, the satellite that will be launched has not actually been built, Varner said. In order to be ready for launch, the team needs to finalize the satellite and go through many tests with NASA, Del Sesto said. The green light from NASA has given the team “motivation” to ensure the satellite’s completion, he added.

Even though the launch has been approved, there is still much work to be done and “plans are never complete until you finish them,” co-leader Casey Meehan ’15 said.


‘Limited resources but large imaginations’

EQUISat is one of the only satellites to be created entirely by undergraduates on a very low budget, Varner said.

The cost of EQUISat is “orders of magnitude” different in price from other satellites, she added. For example, the main housing of the satellite would normally cost between $4,000 and $6,000, but EQUISat is built from a less expensive metal costing $100.

The total cost of the average CubeSat tends to run between $50,000 and millions of dollars, Fleeter said. The current projection for the total cost of EQUISat is between $5,000 and $10,000. This money comes from donations and the School of Engineering.

Fleeter said he has found in his career that people become more creative when less funding is available. “Necessity was the mother of creation in this case,” he said.

The team knew from the beginning it could not compete with  teams made up of professors in terms of scientific achievement, but the students still aimed to build a satellite that could contribute in other ways, Carrere said.

“We had limited resources but large imaginations,” Carrere said.

For these reasons, the team decided to focus on using its satellite as an outreach tool for students in the area.

NASA’s selection of EQUISat validates this approach and shows “there are other people who believe in what we’re doing, who believe that not all new endeavors in space have to be new science,” Monn said. “Some of it can be driven by more sociological motives and accessibility rather than science itself.”


Inspiring students

Many people do not care about space because they do not think it is relevant to their daily lives, Monn said, but advancements such as cell phones and satellite TV were made possible by space research and exploration.

Now that the group has been approved for launch, the team is “kicking our outreach into super-drive right now,” co-team leader Kelly Hering ’14 said. Preparing for outreach involves contacting schools, museums and camps about the satellite and sharing lesson plans with them so they will be ready when the satellite is in orbit, she added.

The team is also working to create a digital application that will work as “a community center for people who are interested in our satellite,” Varner said. There will also be a website where people can input information they receive from the satellite’s radio transmission to unlock entertaining surprises, like poetry.

The group hopes to inspire students in the Providence area and show them that they, too, can achieve what seemed impossible, said team member Ryan Izant ’17.


Furthering the mission

Four out of the five current leaders of the team — Del Sesto, Hering, Varner and Herald photo editor Emily Gilbert ’14 — will graduate this spring, so one major goal of the current leaders is to successfully hand down the reins of the project to younger team members, Varner said.

EQUISat’s transfer of  leadership is not a new feature of the project.

“From the beginning, when we had to pass down the leadership, my co-founder Alex Neff (’12) was really adamant about sticking to the core tenants of the project,” Monn said. The idea was always “to have the mission guide every step,” he said.

Varner said passing down leadership at this point is “a little scary,” but she is confident the next crop of leaders will do well.

The team must constantly recruit new and younger team members, Izant said. Team member Adam Hoff ’16 said he thinks getting approved for the launch removes some of the abstractness of the project and will encourage more people to join.

“We’ve got all this momentum and what we’re looking for at this point going forward is more engagement from the Brown community,” Varner said.

Del Sesto said he thinks the team has a future beyond this specific satellite. For a long time, the goal of the project was to get a launch, he said. Now that the group has done that, the goal is not only to complete it, but to continue to think of new projects. “I think that’s a lot of what space exploration is,” he said.

No matter where the team’s current leaders are when EQUISat  launches, Del Sesto said, they plan to all go watch the launch together.


-With additional reporting by Sarah Perelman


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