Video by UK Public Relations and Marketing
LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 17, 2013) — University of Kentucky students are often encouraged to "reach for the stars" in establishing their goals. A group of UK engineering students have done literally just that.
In November, the satellite they built will be launched into space.
The UK students worked in conjunction with their peers at Morehead State University, under the auspices of the Kentucky Space consortium. The team put in long hours for much of the past year — in addition to their regular classes and assignments — to design, build and test the satellite, named KySat-2.
"It's a phenomenal educational opportunity," says James Lumpp, associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and director of the UK Space Systems Laboratory. "We have had both undergraduate and graduate students working on the project, even some high school interns."
KySat-2 was built to the CubeSat picosatellite standard, which restricts its volume to one liter (about a 4-inch cube, roughly the size of a tissue box) and its mass to one kilogram (2.2 pounds). CubeSat was created to bring small, affordable satellite technology within reach of educational and research institutions. The Kentucky Space consortium is one of a couple dozen or so CubeSat programs operating in the United States.
Yesterday, UK student and manager of the UK team, Jason Rexroat, was in Albuquerque to deliver KySat-2 in person, where it was loaded onto a carrier with other CubeSats from around the country. From there, the satellites will be transported to NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, where they will be launched on an unmanned rocket Nov. 4.
"We're one of just a handful of universities that have a program like this," said Rexroat, a UK electrical engineering graduate student who started working in the Space Systems Laboratory after his freshman year, in the summer of 2009. "It's rare for students to get hands-on experience with an actual space engineering project."
UK's CubeSat program is supported by grants from NASA, including support from the UK-hosted NASA Kentucky Space Grant and EPSCoR Programs. NASA Kentucky funds opportunities for faculty and students across Kentucky to work with NASA researchers. The students who work in the UK Space Systems Lab, many of them undergraduates, are paid employees of the university. Most other CubeSat programs are either club-based and dependent on volunteers, or they are curricular projects that involve large numbers of students working for course credit.
"We are in a fairly unique position in that we have a small number of students who are able to really dedicate themselves to work on the mission," said Steve Alvarado, an electrical engineering senior. "It has been a lot of long hours and a lot of sleepless nights."
Despite its tiny size, KySat-2 is loaded with complex electronics, including an onboard computer, a digital camera, lithium-ion batteries, solar electric panels and a ham radio transceiver.
Once launched, KySat-2 will orbit about 500 km (roughly 300 miles) above the Earth, whizzing around the planet once every 90 minutes or so at speeds close to 8 km/s (18,000 mph). The team will be able to track its position from the ground using software. Two or three times a day, KySat-2 will be a tiny blip on the horizon over Lexington, for about 10 minutes at each pass.
During that brief window, the team will be able to make direct contact with KySat-2 over ham radio frequencies from a ground station in UK's F. Paul Anderson Tower. KySat-2 will send back data, including starfield photos taken with its onboard camera. The team will also be able to make connections at other times via Genso, a network of radio amateur and university ground stations around the world. There are also plans to use a mobile ground station to communicate with the satellite, in an educational outreach mission with local K-12 schools.
KySat-2 is the second Kentucky Space satellite to be built. KySat-1 was built over a period of five years, starting in 2006. Although fully tested and flight-qualified to NASA standards, KySat-1 never achieved orbit. The first Kentucky satellite was lost on March 4, 2011, as part of NASA's unsuccessful Glory mission.
"This is engineering in the extreme," Lumpp says. "Everything that goes into space has to withstand extreme changes in temperature, vacuum, exposure to radiation, intense vibration — virtually every sort of stress you can imagine. When you work in space you have to accept that there's going to be a certain amount of failure. It's just part of the game."
The KySat-2 team members are all too aware of the seemingly infinite number of things that could go wrong, but they try not to think about it too much.
"We've built it to NASA standards, we've bench tested it and put it through all of its paces numerous times," Rexroat said. "Once we hand it over, it's literally out of our hands. We have to just hope for the best."
Chris Mitchell, a computer engineering senior, acknowledges that it will be a long six weeks of waiting from now until launch day.
"Each of us has a huge emotional investment in the mission," he said. "Obviously we all want it to work perfectly."
Still, Alvarado is confident that all the hard work and sleepless nights will pay off:
"It will all be worth it for those five seconds, when we receive our first packets of data."
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