LAS CRUCES – Engineering students at New Mexico State University are working with leading aerospace company Northrop Grumman on projects that could one day solve problems for military and commercial satellite missions with CubeSats – miniature spacecraft that have made a huge impact on our lives today and the promise of even more for the future.
This multidisciplinary endeavor, which started in autumn 2019, is led by Steven Stochaj, interim department head of the Faculty of Electrical and Information Technology; and Hyeongjun Park, assistant professor in the Faculty of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. It was created through conversations with Christopher Long, NMSU engineering alumnus and former Vice President of National Security Systems at Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems. Long is also a member of the College of Engineering’s Executive Advisory Council.
Northrop Grumman awarded the NMSU a scholarship for engineering students in the fall of 2019 to work on satellite alignment systems and space maneuvers. The two-year project was extended by one year due to the pandemic and stipulates that an application for an extension should be applied for after the funding period expired in spring 2022. The ultimate goal is to bring two CubeSats to market that can align and dock.
“They are looking for the autonomous docking of satellites,” said Stochaj, who is also director of the NMSU’s NanoSat Lab. “They have huge military satellites and if they run out of fuel, for example, they have to dock with another satellite to refuel. In theory, they do this while staying in orbit, but there is the pulling of the sun and the pulling of the moon, and the earth is not exactly round so it is really difficult for the satellites to stay in position. Some of these satellites are the size of a car. It’s not an easy thing. “
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In addition to refueling, there are many things small satellites can do, such as services in orbit, repairing broken spacecraft, or manufacturing them in space. The aerospace industry is using smaller and smaller devices. However, Stochaj pointed to future opportunities in commercial and military applications, from providing Internet connectivity to operations.
CubeSats are small, made of aluminum units with standard dimensions of about four inches square (10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm), and typically weigh less than 3 pounds per unit. In combination, they can be built up to 24 units. Because of their small size and light weight, they are easier and less expensive to launch as a payload on a rocket.
The advantages of these small spacecraft also face the greatest challenges – they cannot use large components or actuators or large thrusters. The onboard CPU is small and limited, so they cannot function on the same level as much larger satellites.
Park, director of the Robotics, Unmanned Vehicles and Intelligent Systems Control Lab (RUVICON Lab), said the students are developing technologies for autonomous rendezvous with an optical alignment system for satellites.
They use algorithms with two CubeSats – one is the target and the other is the imager. There are five LEDs attached to the target CubeSat, one for each corner and one in the middle. The imager CubeSat, equipped with a high-quality camera, records images of the target in order to determine its position in relation to the imager. Both CubeSats can align with each other.
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“In addition to the alignment, we are looking at the docking,” said Stochaj. “One of our students came up with the idea of pulling the satellites together with electromagnets that are smaller, lighter and gentler than the robotic arms used previously. Northrop Grumman liked this idea and expanded the scope of the projects. “
As soon as the project is finished, Stochaj and Park will request that the CubeSats take over a “ride-sharing” option for a rocket launch. NASA’s CubeSat program offers small satellites the ability to fly on rockets as auxiliary payloads on previously planned missions.
It will not be the first time that a small satellite using NMSU technology has been launched into space. The SmallSat program, now led by Stochaj, was launched in 2001 by former NMSU engineering professor Steve Horan. Horan’s Three Corner Cube mission won the Air Force Research Laboratory University’s first ever NanoSat competition and was given a launch by the Air Force.
Stochaj and Park merged in 2018 when Park joined NMSU and received SmallSat funding from NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Air Force Research Laboratory.
For the current Northrop Grumman project alone, Stochaj estimates that nearly 75 students were involved in their senior design projects (required for all engineering students) along with the Student Satellite Group and some computer science students.
“Mechanical and aerospace engineering students learn orbital mechanics and spacecraft dynamics and controls so they know how to pilot spacecraft and how to design spacecraft, but there are many sensors and electronic devices that require the skills of electrical engineering students. We also need computer scientists and astronomers for scientific missions. This CubeSat project has a combination of engineering and science students, ”said Park.
During the kickoff meeting for the projects, Northrop Grumman’s innovative technology team announced that they would like to test some of their components with these CubeSats in space, Park said. “It’s a really good opportunity for them to test because the students develop these CubeSats and then provide some components that need to be certified close to space for space flight. It’s a great benefit for both sides. “
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The relationship offers advantages and opportunities for the students with the company.
“They want to develop a workforce for space technology,” said Park. “You kind of develop brand loyalty for students to work in your company. When students understand the complexities of this industry, they become very valuable employees. It’s really a big investment in student talent. “
Stochaj noted that the company had already offered some students employment.
“It’s like doing an internship for these students while they’re in school,” said Stochaj. “You just can’t tell how important this is to students. It is difficult to identify the students’ specialties at first, but this provides an opportunity to train yourself in a real world. This kind of experience gives the students an additional factor that expands their opportunities in industry and science. “
“Now is the new space era,” said Park. “With companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin and in Las Cruces Virgin Galactic, a new era in aerospace technology begins.”
“EYE ON RESEARCH” is provided by New Mexico State University. This week’s feature was written by Linda Fresques of the College of Engineering. She can be reached at 575-646-7416 or [email protected]