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The Launching Pad: Snaring the Sun

First in a series of dispatches from the BU nanosatellite team

Click above to view a slide show about ENG student Kyle Winters' work on a satellite being designed and built by BU students.

This summer, while some college students are heading to the beach, BU students are heading to space. More than 60 undergraduates are designing and building BU’s entry in the University Nanosatellite Program, a U.S. Air Force–sponsored competition, and about half of them are working through the summer.

Every other year, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research gives about 10 university teams the chance to design and build a satellite, and guarantees the winners a launch. The BU satellite is intended 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 that can damage spacecraft electronics and disrupt communication networks such as pagers and cell phones.

The project is 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 will be completed by the undergrads, 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 as they prepare to face a panel of Air Force, NASA, and industry satellite experts in a preliminary design review on August 17.

First up is Kyle Winters (ENG’09), who’s pulling double duty as a member of two subsystem teams. One group is building the solar arrays that will power the satellite. The other will create the project’s required educational component, a curriculum to teach local high school students how to build a satellite’s thermal probe. We also hear from Jeannette Hancock (ENG’08) whose “attitude” subsystem team is designing a system to keep the satellite’s probes and sensors pointed in the right direction as it orbits, and we check in with Fabio Malangone (ENG’09) who’s working with the ground support equipment team. Their task: to inspect, test, calibrate, adjust and repair every system that will come together in the nanosatellite.

Winters seems relatively unfazed by the long hours he and his team members are putting in to prepare for the looming design review. After all, he says, “This is exactly what I’m going to school for.”

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