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Science & Tech

It Really Is Rocket Science

Student-built satellite today faces biggest test yet


In a way, the countdown to liftoff for a satellite built by Boston University undergraduates begins today. Officials from the Air Force are visiting BU for an all-day “critical design review” of the University’s entry in the University Nanosatellite Program, a project that began in early 2007 and will finish, the students hope, at the tip of a rocket next year.

“This review really is the time when the Air Force determines whether or not they can make it to the end with flight hardware,” says project manager David Voss (ENG’09), an engineering doctoral student.

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 into orbit. The BU plan is for a satellite that will hover over the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, which are produced when charged particles from the sun interact with the Earth’s outer atmosphere. The measurements and images taken by the satellite would be used to refine an existing computer model of these auroras, as part of an effort to better predict space weather that can wreak havoc on the Earth’s communication networks, electricity grids, and spacecraft electronics and pose a risk to the health of astronauts.

The BU satellite project is being overseen by Theodore Fritz, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of astronomy, along with a handful of other professors and graduate students. But the design, engineering, testing, and building of the satellite are all the work of undergrads split into about a dozen teams working on different subsystems, such as the probes and imaging equipment, the ground control station that will be housed at BU, and the orbital adjustment system.

In fact, says Voss, one of the biggest challenges as the project enters its second year is how to replace the graduating seniors on the satellite team.

“Even more than mastering the technology, our biggest hurdle in completing this thing will be personnel,” he says. “How do we pass on the knowledge and leadership to the underclassmen?”

Four of those seniors — Bandish Shah (ENG’08), Aaron Desrosiers (ENG’08), Adriel Wallick (ENG’08), and Peter Argue (ENG’08) — are members of the satellite’s command and data handling team, featured in the slide show above. They are responsible for building the data-processing hardware and software that will control the satellite’s instruments and systems and relay data the satellite collects to ground control.

“It’s kind of like the brain of the entire satellite,” Shah explains.

To watch “Part 1: Engineering students prep space probe,” click here.
To watch “Part 2: With deadlines in mind, students take an ‘attitude’ check,” click here.
To watch “Part 3: Getting to ‘all systems go,’ ” click here.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu. Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.

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