BU Today

Science & Tech

It Really Is Rocket Science: Part 3

Getting to “all systems go”

Click above to view a slide show about ENG student Fabio Malangone’s work on a satellite being designed and built by BU students.

This summer, while many college students went to the beach, a few dozen BU engineering students headed off to space. More than 60 undergraduates are designing and building BU’s entry in the University Nanosatellite Program, a competition sponsored by the U.S. Air Force, and about half of them got started on the project this summer.

Every other year, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research gives about 10 university teams the chance to design and build a satellite, guaranteeing the winners a launch. The plan is for the BU satellite 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 Earth’s atmosphere. The measurements and images taken by the satellite are intended to test and enhance an existing computer model of these auroras, as part of an effort to better predict space weather that can damage spacecraft electronics and disrupt communication networks such as pagers and cell phones.

The project is being overseen by Theodore Fritz, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of astronomy, a handful of other professors, and doctoral student David Voss (ENG’09), but the design, the engineering, and the presentations are being done by the undergrads. They are working in about a dozen teams on the satellite’s different subsystems, such as the probes and imaging equipment, the ground control station that will be housed at BU, and the orbital adjustment system. BU Today will check in on their progress periodically throughout the year.

On Wednesday we heard from Kyle Winters (ENG’09), who is on the team building the solar arrays that will power the satellite and also on the team working on the project’s required educational component, a curriculum to teach local high school students how to build a satellite’s thermal probe. Yesterday we listened to Jeanette Hancock (ENG’08), whose “attitude” team is designing a system to keep the satellite’s probes and sensors pointed in the right direction as it orbits Earth.

In this installment, we check in with Fabio Malangone (ENG’09), who is working with the ground support equipment team. Its task: to inspect, test, calibrate, adjust, and repair every system that will come together in the nanosatellite. Once the satellite is built, it will be crammed with delicate instrumentation and will weigh more than 100 pounds. Malangone’s team will also be responsible for moving the craft from place to place.

A few weeks ago, the BU team underwent a preliminary design review by Air Force, NASA, and industry experts. But, Malangone notes, this was just a first step toward the group’s ultimate goal. “It’s a long way out,” he says, “but with our team I’m fairly confident that we’ll have a working satellite by the end of next summer.”

To read "Part one: BU engineering students design and build a satellite" click here.

To read "Part two: With deadlines in mind, students take an "attitude" check" click here.

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