Santa Clara University


Engineering Students Test and Operate a NASA Spacecraft

The 60-foot dish antenna being refurbished and integrated into the satellite control network for controlling the GeneSat-1 satellite

Under the direction of Dr. Christopher Kitts, several undergraduate and graduate students in the Robotic Systems Laboratory are playing a critical role in a new NASA spacecraft program. The GeneSat program is focusing on the development of scientific instrumentation for performing biological studies in space through the use of very small satellites weighing only a few kilograms. Santa Clara students and faculty are participating in this program with leading scientists and engineers from the NASA Ames Research Center’s Astrobionics Research Group and Stanford University’s National Center for Space Biological Technologies. Current work on this project involves preparation for a Spring 2006 launch of a test payload as well as the final engineering and test of GeneSat-1, a free-flying satellite to be launched in Fall 2006.

SCU's Mission Operations Facility in the SCU research office at the NASA Ames Research Park

One of the most exciting elements of this project is that Santa Clara students have the primary responsibility for controlling the spacecraft and analyzing its data when it is in orbit. In preparation for that, the Santa Clara team is currently completing the engineering of the ground control system that will be used to transmit commands to the satellite, to receive the data it broadcasts, and to perform analysis of the spacecraft’s operation. This ground control system includes a mission operations center in a Robotics Lab office at NASA Ames and the use of a refurbished 60 -foot diameter antenna station that is located in the foothills and which is owned by SRI International. Santa Clara students are also responsible for end-to-end functional testing of the overall satellite, the ground communication station, and the mission operations facility system. In addition, they will manage a secondary mission performed by the satellite involving use of the satellite for space technology educational programs throughout the world.

Students have been involved in this project in several ways. For example, a senior design team has been instrumental in developing a new software system for managing the commands that are sent to the satellite and telemetry data that is broadcast back to ground. In addition, a graduate student on the project is currently working on his Master’s thesis research which involves the use of advanced techniques for detecting and diagnosing problems with the satellite.

Undergraduate Student Team Develops a Prototype Microsatellite

Will Nguyen (EE), Jose Acain (Math), Jonathan Crabtree (EE), Phelps Williams (COEN), and John Shepard (ME) prepare the satellite electronics for an industry design review

A group of 16 undergraduates from 5 separate departments are working together to develop a prototype microsatellite as part of a technology development effort funded by NASA and the U.S. Air Force. These students are developing the ONYX spacecraft, which will demonstrate advanced control techniques as part of the graduate research program in the Robotic Systems Laboratory. The primary mission will be to demonstrate new techniques for detecting, diagnosing, and resolving faults and anomalies as they occur. In addition, a new multi-spectral imaging technology being developed in partnership with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory will be demonstrated.

Over the course of the past academic year, the team of seniors has developed several of the technology payloads, a radio communication system for sending commands and receiving data, a network of sensors to monitor the operation of the system, a network of computers to control the satellite’s functionality, and a power system for generating and storing energy used to support operations. They have also developed an aluminum structure for protecting the satellite during its rocket launch and a control system for changing the orientation of the satellite as it flies through the Earth’s magnetic field.

As part of the project, the senior team is working with several graduate students in the Robotics Laboratory who are involved in the project through their graduate research or through project-based courses. Several underclass students are also participating in the project as engineering interns with the potential of taking over the project in future years. The seniors participate in several design reviews with representatives from the government, industry, and other academic institutions.

Graduate Students Explore Multi-Robot Collaboration

Pat Connolly (left) and Kyle Stanhouse (right) with their collaborating robots

Graduate students Patrick Connolly (ME), Matt Kalkbrenner (ME), and Kyle Stanhouse (EE) are working with Dr. Christopher Kitts in the Robotic Systems Laboratory to explore control techniques that will allow a small group of mobile robots to work together to perform physical tasks such as manipulating and transporting objects. The research team is working together on a unique set of two robots that have omnidirectional motion capabilities that allow them to move in any direction regardless of their orientation. These robots were previously developed by two award-winning, interdisciplinary senior design teams.

"One Step Ahead" into the World of Engineering


SWE and Gains students in front of the Animal Habitat Tic-Tac-Toe exhibit at Happy Hollow Zoo

The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) prides itself in encouraging students to develop a well-rounded character, serves as a support group for students, and teaches its members the importance of giving back to the community and helping those less fortunate than themselves. Thus, the SCU SWE chapter has focused their efforts on youth and community outreach.

In 2005, SWE launched a pilot program called One Step Ahead. During this monthly event, female high school students from the GAINS program (Girls Achieving in Non-Traditional Subjects) were invited on campus to learn about the different engineering disciplines and participate in hands-on engineering activities. With the support of various engineering faculty and organizations such as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), SWE effectively demonstrated electrical engineering through a tsunami simulation experiment, computer engineering through a HTML/JavaScript programming exercise, mechanical engineering through a lesson of gears, and civil engineering through the use of a bridge construction simulation program. By inviting college students and faculty to participate in the event, the students were given a rare opportunity to ask questions, interact with professors, and briefly experience college life. The program had an enthusiastic reception from the 2005 participants sparking our interest to continue and improve this program.

The One Step Ahead program has held four sessions: two at the Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose and two at SCU. This year, the sessions were changed to introduce the students to different aspects of each of the disciplines. The electrical engineering session taught basic circuitry, the computer engineering session introduced Visual Basic.NET programming, and the civil engineering session presented structural theory through a competition to build a bridge given a box of materials.

In addition to these revamped sessions, SWE decided to expand the 2006 One Step Ahead program by adding a long term project: restoring and building new interactive modules for the Happy Hollow Zoo. Currently, the modules are outdated and in desperate need of repair. Recognizing this need, the students were invited to analyze the current exhibits and create ideas and layouts for a new module. Through this activity, the students were taught the engineering process: from the early stages of brainstorming to the final stages of development and production. By experiencing a real life application of engineering, the students also witnessed the true power of being an engineer – changing and improving the world through innovation.

In addition to repairs, the students are also currently working on a design for a new exhibit. The GAINS program has received a grant of $2000 from Synopsys and has applied for a $1000 mini-grant through the California Girls Collaborative. This year’s goal is to complete the documentation for a new exhibit design. The project will continue into next year, with the building and placement of the new exhibit at Happy Hollow Zoo.

As a result of their many contributions and efforts through their One Step Ahead Program, SCU’s SWE chapter won Third Place in the Outstanding Student Competition at the society’s annual conference in Anaheim this past November.