Two nanosatellites developed by students and faculty members at New Mexico State University, the University of Colorado at Boulder and Arizona State University are scheduled to be launched Dec. 10 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., aboard a Delta 4-Heavy rocket built by Boeing.
The nanosatellites weigh about 60 pounds and are the size of a large microwave oven. Traditional satellites are the size of a minivan or school bus.
The nanosatellites were built as part of the University Nanosat Program, a competition sponsored by the Air Force Office of Sponsored Research, the Defense Advanced Projects Agency and NASA. Ten universities across the country competed in teams, and the NMSU, UC-Boulder and ASU team was the one selected to build three satellites. The team called its effort the Three Corner Satellite Project.
The main scientific project for the satellites will be to use digital cameras to capture stereo images of cloud formations that can later be converted into 3-D images.
"Very few people have ever taken pictures of clouds stereoscopically," said Stephen Horan, a professor of electrical engineering at NMSU who directed the university's participation in the project.
Another goal of the project is to test how well commercial-grade components work in space. Most of the parts used for the nanosatellites, including the digital cameras, were ordered from catalogs and have not been space-proven, Horan said.
If the project shows that nanosatellites can be operated successfully with commercial-grade components, Horan said, it could help facilitate university research because nanosatellites are so much less expensive than traditional satellites. Each of the nanosatellites built for this project cost less than $100,000, compared to $10 million for traditional satellites.
"Our goal is to make quick-turnaround, low-cost platforms that can easily be adapted to other kinds of missions," Horan said.
The satellites will separate from the Boeing rocket after launch and form a virtual formation in space. Instead of using thrusters to position them, Horan said, the satellites' positions will be processed by ground software to make the stereo images.
"It's lighter and cheaper than using thrusters and rocket fuel," he said.
Once the satellites are in orbit, personnel at ground stations on the NMSU, UC-Boulder and ASU campuses will monitor them. Transmissions from the satellites will come in to antennas located on top of the Thomas and Brown engineering building at NMSU. The satellites will be in orbit for two to three days, Horan said.
Students and faculty members have been working on the project since January 1999. Each university took the lead on a different aspect of the project, with NMSU focusing on communications for the nanosatellites. About 50 students from NMSU participated in the project over the last four years.
The nanosatellites were originally scheduled to be launched on the Space Shuttle, but those plans were cancelled after the Columbia disaster in 2003. More recently, the launch was delayed several times by hurricanes in Florida.
NMSU students are now building a new satellite for the next University Nanosat Program competition, which will be held in January. This nanosatellite is designed to study cosmic rays.
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