SKC science program reaches into space with NASA CubeSat satellite

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This rocket, launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in November 2011, had the Mars-bound MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) rover on-board, a major NASA flight mission in which SKC students and faculty are taking part.

PABLO — Salish Kootenai College is going to the final frontier, but it won’t need the Starship Enterprise to get there.

The tribal college was one of just 33 higher education schools across the nation with the opportunity to design and operate its own NASA CubeSat satellite. These small, 10 centimeter by 10 centimeter cubes are intended for educational use, but have a practical science objective as well, using broad-band visible light orbital imagery to study atmospheric aerosols, cloud formation and hydrologic processes.

The SKC CubeSat isn’t the college’s first collaboration with NASA, in fact it’s the culmination of years of helping the agency and demonstrating the institution’s ability to participate in space missions.

“SKC provides quality educational opportunities for our students in many degree areas on par with larger colleges and universities,” Tim Olson, chairman for the Division of Sciences at SKC, said. “The SKC CubeSat and Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission participation are evidence of that.”

SKC students and Olson have been working on the MSL since 2005. The MSL rover is slated to make touchdown on Mars in August 2012. The rover’s mission is to determine if Mars’ surface was ever or is currently habitable for microscopic life.

“Over 200 scientists and 500 engineers have come together for this mission to try to answer the question of whether Mars has ever been habitable for life,” Olson said. “It has been a great experience to contribute to the scientific investigation of whether life is unique to Earth, one of the most profound scientific questions of our time, and to see how a major NASA flight mission comes together. SKC participation in a major NASA flight mission like MSL has given us more visibility on the national stage.”

When the rover lands on Mars, SKC students will help Olson and the mission’s science team explore the landing site and operate the science cameras. Cameras have become something of a specialty for SKC’s division of sciences. In 2010, the school began developing a satellite camera system prototype that was selected to fly it on a NASA high altitude balloon over New Mexico and Arizona in August 2011.

Two SKC satellites took photos from 23 miles above earth showing the government agency that the college could fly with the best of them.

“That flight provided the SKC team with space hardware design and operations experience,” Olson said. “It also demonstrated to NASA the capability of SKC to successfully build and operate space flight hardware.”

Around the same time his division was developing its high-altitude camera, Olson submitted another proposal to NASA for a flight-ready CubeSat with the goal of providing tribal college students the experience of designing, building, testing and operating a satellite in preparation for a NASA-focused career.

“Past NASA involvement in the MSL mission and the NASA high altitude balloon program was important for demonstrating the capability of SKC faculty and students to contribute to NASA flight missions,” Olson said. “Without the experience and knowledge gained on those projects by SKC students and faculty we wouldn’t have the capability to do our own satellite.”

In August 2011, NASA announced its third competition for CubeSat launch opportunities and experts closely inspected what SKC students and staff members were hoping to put in orbit.

“The preliminary design was reviewed by outside experts from NASA and people from other universities experienced in satellite design. Overall, the review affirmed the viability of the SKC preliminary design but also helped identify further work needed to complete the design,” Olson said. “The thoroughness required to prepare for the design reviews is always an eye-opener for students, but once the review is passed, students have a strong feeling of accomplishment.”

SKC was one of 33 schools, including big-hitters like Cal-Berkeley, Notre Dame, Texas, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and MIT to have their design selected. Montana State also had its proposal OK-ed by NASA.

“We anticipate we will know our launch date within a few months and expect it to be in late 2013 or in 2014,” Olson said. “Our CubeSat will piggyback on the launch of another spacecraft, possibly on a resupply mission to the International Space Station.”

In the meantime, the SKC team will be at the drawing board and in the laboratory preparing its satellite for the harshest environment that man has ever experienced. The designing, building and testing of the CubeSat will take three years with several external reviews by NASA along the way. There will be checks to ensure the satellite is flight-ready three months before it’s delivered to the launch provider. The SKC CubeSat will be solar powered, and carry a student and staff-designed camera and a radio for receiving and transmitting data.

“The first two years of work is doing design. In the third year we will build the flight hardware and software and do testing to verify the CubeSat will survive launch and operate successfully in orbit,” Olson said.

Olson said testing includes exposing the satellite to strong vibrations similar to those that will be felt during launch and cycles of hot and cold in a vacuum to simulate the environmental conditions in space as the satellite passes from sunlight to darkness and back to sunlight every 90 minutes as it orbits the Earth.

The SKC team will have to make sure its satellite communication system doesn’t interfere with other communications and show that its satellite won’t outgas anything or harm the main spacecraft that the CubeSat will be traveling into space with.

“Some of the testing will be done at SKC using equipment we have, and some will be done at other universities,” Olson said.

The SKC team has built a satellite communication ground station that will use amateur radio frequencies to send up commands and will receive satellite telemetry and images from the camera. Most university-built CubeSats use amateur radio, and SKC will broadcast a beacon signal that radio operators from around the world can receive.

“We will enlist their help in receiving image data from our satellite in order to be able to transfer down many more images than would be possible if we only downlinked data when our satellite was over Pablo,” Olson said.

SKC faces bigger challenges than other universities because its team of eight-10 people is significantly smaller than larger universities’ teams of 50+ students. Olson said that fact makes it especially important for the team to manage its work and ensure all of it gets done on time.

“The most rewarding part of this work for me is to witness the growth in capability of our students and their pride in and enthusiasm for building their own satellite,” Olson said. “I expect several of these students to go on to NASA-focused careers because of their participation in this project, and for those that choose to go on to non-space related careers they will look back on this experience as an important part of their development as an engineer or scientist.”

One of those students is Kody Ensley, who after starting an internship with SKC went on to three internships at Johnson Space Center. After he graduates in June, he will work there as a full-time employee.

Along with working on and operating the CubeSat, SKC will continue to help out with the MSL. SKC students Judy Hudgins and Noel Stewart will travel with Olson to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in August for three months to help the MSL science team with the operations of the science cameras.

“We’ll return to Montana in November and continue with camera operations and science investigations from SKC,” Olson said. “The MSL rover will likely operate for over 10 years, and SKC students will continue to assist with the mission throughout.”

So while the impact of SKC has been felt locally for years, giving a valuable education to countless students on the Flathead Reservation, the school is also reaching out and blazing a new trail through the stars.

Above are two examples of cube satellites. The image on the left is an artist rendering of Montana State University’s Explorer 1 CubeSat. The image on the right is a CubeSat created by the University of Michigan designated the Michigan Mulitpurpose Mini-satellite, or M-Cubed. M-Cubed’s mission is to obtain mid-resolution color imagery of Earth’s surface and ultimately advance technology required for real-time, high-data-rate instrument processing relevant to future Earth science.

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