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Student-built satellite launches into space

Brown Space Engineering’s EQUiSat will arrive at International Space Station Thursday as part of NASA mission

The night before their satellite was launched into space aboard a NASA rocket, past and present members of Brown Space Engineering gathered to celebrate the last seven years with a cookout, said Anand Lalwani ’18, leader of the group’s team in charge of solar power and battery construction. The launch was both exciting and bittersweet for the team, marking the culmination of thousands of hours of work by hundreds of students, he said.

The experience was nerve-wracking at the same time, as the team was not sure if the rocket would actually launch, said Max Monn GS, one of the project’s founders who also worked on manufacturing and flash for the team. Storms had already pushed the launch back, said Hunter Ray ’18, the projects manager. Many of the group’s leaders said there was a one sixth chance of the rocket taking off, said Noah Joseph ’18, the computer aided design lead.

Their fears were alleviated six seconds after 4:44 a.m. last Monday, when the rocket carrying BSE’s satellite — named EQUiSat — successfully began its ascent toward space, said Manav Kohli ’18, the avionics hardware lead.

Team members watched the launch four miles from the launch site on Wallops Island, Virginia. Locals and visitors from other states joined the team to witness the event, Joseph said.

Calling the launch “spectacular” would be an understatement, Kohli said. “The whole sky lit up orange. It was beautiful,” Joseph said. “The thing that you miss a lot when you watch a launch on a video is … the sound. You don't get how it feels. You can feel the rocket physically because of how loud it is,” Kohli said.

It took about 10 seconds for the rocket to disappear from view, Kohli said. The team celebrated with champagne, Lalwani said.

EQUiSat will arrive at the International Space Station Thursday, Monn said. From there, it will be launched at some point between late June and early August and will remain in space for a year and a half, Monn said. The satellite was planned to test lithium iron batteries, which are somewhat uncommon in spacecrafts, The Herald previously reported.

The months leading up to the launch were “hectic but exciting,” Joseph said. The bulk of the final work took place between the beginning of the spring semester and March 21, when the satellite was handed off for launch, Kohli said. Some members were still making last-minute adjustments before the launch, such as coding updates for the website to ensure that the countdown timer ran correctly, said Hannah Varner ’14. Even after the satellite is deployed and begins operations, students will undertake major efforts to ensure that the team will be able to communicate with it, Monn said.

The team faced many challenges in creating the EQUiSat — not least the fact that their leadership is completely composed of students, Lalwani said. “None of us had built a satellite before, or anything like it,” he said. Revealing how accessible space can be was also an important part of the project, Kohli said.

The project shows that space engineering is not far out of reach for space enthusiasts, The Herald previously reported. The EQUiSat was comparatively inexpensive to build, made for only $3,776, Ray said. If people want to make a satellite of their own, they can visit the BSE website to see exactly how it was created. EQUiSat will also be trackable from space and is even equipped with an LED light so people can see it from Earth, Varner said.

Students could join BSE to work on the satellite the first day of their freshman year, Kohli said. Zach Nado ’16 joined the team as a sophomore after his curiosity was piqued by a poster in Barus and Holley. At the time, BSE had recently received the launch contract with NASA, so the project had quickly turned from a fun hypothetical into something more concrete, he said.

Brant Hoffman ’15 was initially drawn to the difficulty of the engineering problem that the project posed. When he joined, he found a family and community that ultimately kept him involved.

BSE is now working on a number of other projects. The tentatively-named “FutureSat,” the next satellite the team has planned, is still in the brainstorming phase, Joseph said.


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