Up, up, and away

Up, up, and away
Slow it down: The sail on NanoSail-D trims the speed and brings down the satellite sooner rather than later and cuts down on space junk. Courtesy NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center
by Sam Scott '96 |
Further nanosatellite adventures in the cosmos—with SCU students at Mission Control.

Launching a 12-pound nanosatellite into orbit is a little bit like becoming the caretaker for a newborn baby. Suddenly you do things on its schedule, not yours.

In the weeks after the O/OREOS satellite was detached from an Air Force rocket last November, students with the SCU School of Engineering Robotics Systems Laboratory had to be ready any time the satellite streaked overhead. Be it at 3 a.m. or 3 p.m., they were at Mission Control on the third floor of Bannan Engineering, furiously sending commands and checking vital statistics before the tiny vessel disappeared over the horizon, out of reach till the next pass. “You never know how things are going to act in space,” says Associate Professor Chris Kitts, director of the robotics lab. 

SCU is the only university in the country to let students do all mission operations and ground development for NASA satellites.

Waking for satellites means a wearying schedule, doctoral student Michael Neumann ’03 says. But like any guardian, he found it a relief to see things are going well 400 miles above. The satellite, whose name is an acronym for Organism/Organic Exposure to Orbital Stresses, carried astrobiology experiments testing how microorganisms found in soil and salt ponds respond to solar ultraviolet radiation and other ardors of space. Results could help scientists with questions about the origin, evolution, and durability of life.

The Small Spacecraft Division

The flight was a joint effort between NASA/Ames’ Small Spacecraft Division, which built the 12-pound vessel, and Santa Clara, which managed it. Space missions are nothing new for Santa Clara’s Robotics Systems Laboratory, a magnet for undergraduate and graduate students eager for real-world, high-tech challenges in environments as diverse as deep lakes and outer space. For more than 10 years, engineering students involved with the lab have been designing, building, and controlling nanosatellites that are often times as small as a loaf of bread. The lab has been working with NASA since 2004.

A cosmic tail

In addition to the O/OREOS satellite, the Minotaur rocket that launched last November from Kodiak Island, Alaska, contained three more satellites with SCU connections. One of them, NanoSail-D, reported to SCU’s Mission Control, testing a novel way to force satellites into de-orbit—an important goal given the growing amounts of junk orbiting in space endangering other satellites. After reaching space, the NanoSail unfurled a 10-square-meter sheet of fabric no thicker than single-ply tissue to slow its speed.

The rocket also contained two satellites operated by the University of Texas at Austin, using flight computers provided by the Santa Clara team to guide the satellites in formation flying. O/OREOS, though, was the satellite most entwined with SCU. In addition to operating Mission Control for months, students provided the satellite with its own way of de-orbiting.

A satellite of O/OREOS’ size, altitude, and density would normally remain in space for more than 60 years before it burned up in Earth’s atmosphere, which is twice as long as NASA guidelines allow. So graduate student Eric Stackpole M.S. ’11 devised a spring-loaded, box-shaped tail that popped out of the satellite after O/OREOS reached orbit, increasing its surface area by more than 60 percent. The increased drag should gradually slow it down, hastening re-entry time for the satellite to less than 25 years. Stackpole’s device marked the first time NASA has used a propellantless de-orbiting mechanism on a scientific satellite.

The next project will give the lab’s undergraduates a chance to show their power of design. In August 2012, NASA will launch a nanosatellite studying E. coli in space. SCU students are designing a low-power, low-cost mechanical way to point the satellite in a particular direction, necessary for communicating with Mission Control.

“There is no other school that does mission operations for NASA the way we do,” says lab director Kitts, who started in satellite operations as an Air Force officer. “It’s really a student-centered operation.”

SCU is the only university in the country to let students do all mission operations and ground development for NASA satellites, he says. Students developed the Mission Control center itself, and they wrote the software and operating procedures. 

OREOS satellite launch.

Spring 2014

Table of contents


Radiant house

Building a house for the 2013 Solar Decathlon. That, and changing the world.

Américas cuisine

Telling a delicious tale of food and family with chef David Cordúa ’04.

Lessons from the field

Taut and tranquil moments in Afghanistan—an essay in words and images.

Mission Matters

Carried with compassion

The Dalai Lama’s first visit to Santa Clara.

Farther afield

Building safer houses in Ecuador. Research on capuchin monkeys in Costa Rica. Helping empower girls in The Gambia. And this is just the beginning for the Johnson Scholars Program.

What connects us

The annual State of the University address, including some fabulous news for the arts and humanities. And the announcement of Santa Clara 2020, a new vision for the University.