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Student-built satellite returns after two and a half years in space

Brown Space Engineering’s EQUiSat tests batteries for NASA, orbits Earth over 14,000 times

Brown Space Engineering’s first ever student-built satellite, EQUiSat, reentered Earth’s atmosphere on Dec. 26, 2020, after over 14,000 trips around Earth. Brown students had the opportunity to track the satellite as it traveled around Earth and work directly with NASA to test the use of LiFePO4 (lithium iron phosphate) batteries in space. 

Despite initial estimates by the Brown Space Engineering team that expected the satellite to only last six months to a year, it ran successfully for two and a half years in low Earth orbit, said Rick Fleeter, adjunct professor of engineering and advisor to Brown Space Engineering.

EQUiSat was first approved by NASA for launch in 2014 as one of the first major projects for Brown Space Engineering, then known as the Brown CubeSat Team. The satellite was successfully launched into space from Wallop Island, Virginia in 2018. 

The Brown CubeSat team first started as a group of four undergraduate students who wanted to build a satellite from scratch, said Emily Gilbert ‘14, a former member of Brown Space Engineering. They wanted to “make space less intimidating.”  

The team prioritized making their projects open and accessible to the public by making the software and instructions for building EQUiSat open source so other students could take inspiration from their work, Gilbert said. When the satellite was in orbit, the team set up a ground station to receive data regarding the satellite’s current location which anyone could access at any time via a BSE-developed website and app. 

One of the main missions of EQUiSat was to test LiFePO4 batteries for use in outer space. The batteries were implemented for a study by NASA designed to see how industrial strength batteries perform in space, Fleeter said. 

The batteries “drew a high amount of current” and were not designed for space, Sarang Mani ’21, the current project manager of BSE, said. BSE members conducted an independent study on the batteries before EQUiSat went up into space when NASA wanted to test their functionality in outer space. The batteries performed “as expected,” Mani said, adding that he wants to revisit the results with BSE to determine how they can be used in future satellite missions. 

The BSE team was surprised that the satellite lasted in space so long, Mani said. “EQUiSat stayed in orbit the longest out of all the other satellites that launched with us,” he added. 

Due to a mild solar cycle, the satellite was able to stay up in outer space much longer than initially expected. The sun has different levels of activity during an 11 year cycle, and at the time of EQUiSat’s orbits in space, the sun’s activity was at its lowest point, Gilbert explained. 

BSE is currently working on future long term projects, including design challenges for the NASA Big Idea Challenge and projects in collaboration with RISD’s Rover Team, Mani said. The club is also starting the process of developing and launching a new satellite by 2024 or 2025, he added. 



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