A University student-led satellite project called SBUDNIC has been building an exceptionally quickly and efficiently developed research nanosatellite. The satellite, a 3U Cubesat built on a $10,000 budget over the course of a year, would be the first of its kind built solely from terrestrial parts — materials not designed for space and a fraction of usual costs. If it passes the regulatory tests, the satellite will launch into space this spring.
From class to space: satellite launch grounded in ENGN 1760
The project grew out of ENGN 1760: “Design of Space Systems,” taught by Adjunct Associate Professor of Engineering Rick Fleeter ’76 PhD’81, with the goal of making “space accessible by pushing the limits of how cheaply, quickly and efficiently people can build a satellite,” program manager Dheraj Ganjikunta ’22 said.
“One thing that worried me was that these were students who had just taken their very first course in space architecture and had never built anything before,” said Fleeter, the faculty advisor of the project.
The satellite is built from “parts that are not meant to be in space,” like double AA batteries and an $8 Arduino processor — an open-source electronic platform that can be used to construct home projects, such as a toy robot — Ganjikunta said.
SBUDNIC Chief Engineer Marco Cross GS, a second-year masters student in biomedical engineering, explained that terrestrial components are not used in space, where there is no atmosphere, because materials like plastics and metals boil off and vaporize. “We’re working within the confines of that limit to try and address these questions as best we can,” he added.
“It’s kind of like a Lego satellite,” Fleeter said. “It brings space down to a level that any old hobbyist could do.” Placing satellites in the same category as simple homemade robots is “paradigm breaking,” challenging the notion that years of preparation, experience and certain facilities are required, he added.
Light, cameras, orbit: equipping SBUDNIC for space
Once launched, the satellite will be orbiting at approximately 500 kilometers — a height above the average altitude of the International Space Station — which contains “lots of radiation and is actually a pretty hazardous environment for CubeSats, which traditionally will be at 100 or 200 kilometers” lower, Ganjikunta said.
A special part of the satellite the team designed, the aerodrag device, will pop out to become wings under conditions of little atmosphere, creating drag and slowly pushing the satellite out of its orbit. This device, which is made from aluminum, will allow the satellite to leave orbit within 25 years, in accordance with a recent satellite regulation imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration and National Aeronautics and Space Administration, according to Ganjikunta.
But the team estimates that the satellite will be in space for around six or seven years given that the atmosphere in space changes based on the season and natural phenomena like solar flares, according to Cross.
The team is also adding cameras to the satellite with the goal of having the satellite transmit images from space. “An image from a satellite is not all that new, but an image from a satellite of this kind of variant is wild,” Cross said.
“The most gratifying thing for me is going to be when we get our first beam back down from space, because then we know that the thing we made is working,” he added.
But, once the satellite’s batteries die and it is no longer able to send down pictures, the “usable life” of the satellite is dead, Cross said. The usable life of the satellite could last anywhere from 45 days to six months, depending on the number of pictures it sends down each day as each picture “consumes a certain amount of power,” according to Cross. The team is currently figuring out ways to extend the usable life of the satellite.
Exploring space engineering: making space accessible to all
The project, which is funded by D-Orbit and the National Research Council of Italy, consists of multiple subteams that each focus on specific parts of the satellite and preparations for the launch, such as “Thermal Control System,” “Electrical Power Systems” and “Altitude and Orbit Control.”
Many team members are not planning to pursue fields connected to space or even STEM-related professions. “None of us are professionals,” Cross said.
Though Haley Fores ’24 has not worked on an engineering project before, she thought the opportunity would be “such a cool experience” and decided to join. Flores is an engineer on the Electrical Power Systems team helping to design and build the battery pack for the satellite.
“The entire space industry in the last five years has completely changed and moved in the direction from gigantic companies sending up gigantic satellites to tiny companies sending tiny satellites,” Ganjikunta said. “As a non-engineering person, the possibilities that space opens up — I find super exciting.”
Once the satellite is built, it will have to pass a series of qualification tests with the United Technologies Research Center, a third-party testing site, to be approved for launch.
“We have to take (the satellite) to a bona fide research facility and have it tested there with all these different vibration, vacuum and thermal tests,” Ganjikunta said.
To ensure that the satellite will pass these tests, the team must first replicate testing conditions on campus to “prequalify the satellite,” Cross said. The stakes are high: If the satellite does not pass the official tests, the team will have to undergo the whole qualification process again, he added.
After these tests, the satellite will be classified as a controlled weapon under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, as per global standards for certain spacecrafts and satellites.
“Learning the engineering design process was definitely eye opening,” Flores said. “There’s no right answer; it’s just trying different things, testing it out and seeing what works best.”
If qualified, the satellite is set to launch from Florida in 157 days as of Sept. 27. The launch countdown can be tracked on the SBUDNIC team website.
“The fact that we get to reach up and touch just a little bit of (space) is kind of incredible and not something that I ever thought I would do in my life,” Cross said.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Dheraj Ganjikunta’s title and the height of orbit for CubeSats as 100 or 200 kilometers. The article also inaccurately described the chassis as popping out of the satellite in the absence of gravity when, in fact, the aerodrag device, attached to the chassis, will pop out to assist with the satellite’s leave of orbit under conditions of little atmosphere. The Herald regrets the errors.