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Science & Tech

Extracurriculars Get Extraterrestrial

BU undergrads to design and build a satellite

The planned satellite would study the aurora borealis (northern lights).

Kyle Winters read the February e-mail from Theodore Fritz, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of astronomy, with a mixture of excitement and disbelief. Fritz was inviting Winters (ENG’09) to join with other interested engineering students to help build a satellite for the U.S. Air Force. The satellite would aid in the study of space weather — the movement of electrons and other particles from Earth’s magnetosphere that can damage spacecraft electronics and disrupt communication networks such as pagers and cell phones.

“My first reaction was, wow, there’s no way there’s going to be room for me on this, but I’m going to try anyway,” says Winters. There was room. He and more than 65 fellow students will now design and build BU’s entry in the University Nanosatellite Program, a competition sponsored by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Theodore Fritz, CAS professor of
astronomy, and doctoral student
David Voss (ENG’09) will help
about 65 undergrads build a
satellite to study space weather.
Photo by Vernon Doucette

Every other year, the Air Force funds about 10 university proposals, giving selected teams $110,000 to design and build a satellite over two years and guaranteeing the winners a launch. The BU satellite will be designed to hover over the aurora borealis, known as the northern lights, which are produced when particles from radiation belts hundreds of miles out in space interact with the Earth’s atmosphere. The measurements and images taken by the satellite would test and enhance an existing computer model of these auroras, part of an effort to better predict space weather.

The project will be overseen by Fritz and a handful of other professors and graduate students, but the design work, the engineering, and the presentations will be the work of the undergrads.

“The primary purpose is to train the next generation of space engineers, space scientists, and space physicists,” says Fritz. “The Air Force really stresses the involvement of students throughout the process.”

These undergrads will work in some 14 teams on the satellite’s different subsystems, such as the various probes and imaging equipment, the ground control station that will be housed at BU, and the orbital adjustment system. They will have their first test tomorrow, when they make a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation, called a System Concept Review, to the Air Force.

“It’s an opportunity to introduce the Air Force to our satellite, our subsystems, and our project’s management structure, and for them to give us feedback,” explains engineering doctoral student David Voss (ENG’09), the project manager. The next milestone will come in August, with a preliminary design review at a satellite conference in Utah.

In the meantime, the subsystem teams are meeting at least once a week, and Fritz has raised an additional $100,000 to provide stipends and housing grants for the many students who will work on the project over the summer. The extra funding has been provided by the Photonics Center, BU’s Center for Space Physics, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Office of the Provost, and several areas of the College of Engineering, including the dean’s office, the department of electrical and computer engineering, and the STARS (Summer Term Alumni Research Scholars) program.

The challenge of getting a satellite designed and built in just two years with very little funding makes Voss redefine winning as simply completing a functioning spacecraft, something a BU nanosatellite team tried unsuccessfully to do in 1999. Voss, who helped build a satellite for the Air Force competition as an undergraduate at Taylor University in Indiana, thinks the current BU team has a very good chance.

Both he and Fritz believe that the biggest technological challenge will be miniaturizing the probes, sensors, and imagers that will be squeezed into four-inch cubes and stacked inside the satellite to be deployed once the craft is in orbit. Beyond that, Voss says, the real challenge will be maintaining good communication among the teams. “The biggest thing is, can we pull it off from a teamwork standpoint,” he notes.

Winters, for one, is optimistic. “I’ve never been involved in anything remotely close to this level of design or engineering,” he says. “But I know many of the students around me have incredible technical knowledge, and from what I’ve been hearing from other groups and from the level of enthusiasm, I think there’s a very good chance we’ll build a satellite that will be launched.”

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.