Illinois wins NASA awards for three CubeSat missions

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News & Events News Stories Calendar AE Publications Home ? News & Events Illinois wins NASA awards for three CubeSat missions Susan Mumm, Aerospace Engineering
5/17/2016 1:25:18 PM

Story Highlights

  • Students in departments including Aerospace Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science will team up to build the satellites and the experiments.

Alex Ghosh working with students in the ARES Center
Alex Ghosh working with students in the ARES Center

Illinois undergraduates from engineering, business and journalism disciplines will work together on three CubeSat missions following recent awards from the National Aeronautical and Space Administration.

Illinois has successfully gained shares in $500,000 worth of proposals submitted to NASA’s $8 million Undergraduate Student Instrument Project initiative, designed for undergraduates to conduct hands-on flight research.

Illinois students in departments including Aerospace Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science will team up to build the satellites and the experiments. Business students will work with process management, practical design and construction to help streamline the workflows. Multimedia journalism students will document the myriad challenges the teams face as they bring the projects to fruition.

Alexander Ghosh, AE Lecturer and Manager of the Advanced Research for the Exploration of Space (ARES) Center, said the various projects will be multi-institutional as well as multidisciplinary. Illinois will partner with Northwestern University on one project, Purdue University on another, and will involve Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, to a smaller degree.

CubeSats, also known as nanosatellites, are about 4x4x13 inches in size and weigh only about 3 pounds. Illinois Prof. Victoria Coverstone began researching CubeSats in 2001. The current award will allow Illinois to demonstrate three technologies NASA describes as being “of high value” to the agency:



The Cooling, Pointing and Annealing Satellite (CAPSat) is a 3U CubeSat bus developed at Illinois. This satellite will be a technology demonstrator for three key experiments. First, it will demonstrate an active liquid cooling system for CubeSats. Second, it will demonstrate a new control strategy—using piezoelectric actuators embedded in solar panels—to simultaneously reduce vibrations and to change the CubeSat pointing direction. Finally it will develop a single-photon annealing technique to extend the lifetime of sensors important to quantum entanglement experiments in space. The total grant is $200,000, with a small percentage of the work being subcontracted to Bradley University.

Ghosh and AE postdoctoral research associate Kevin Bassett will conduct the coolant experiment, using microvascular technology that AE Prof. Scott White’s group has developed. As a CubeSat travels deeper in space, it needs to use high power systems such as communications and thrusters to operate effectively, Ghosh said. These systems produce significant heat, and require active cooling to be effective. The experiment will deploy a panel equipped with microvascular channels through which a coolant is circulated to the CubeSat’s hotspots, reducing the overall temperature.

Physics Prof. Paul Kwiat will experiment with improving the performance of single-photon detectors. Specifically, he will study the use of laser-induced heating to repair damage to the detectors caused by radiation in space.

Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering Assistant Prof. James Allison and AE Associate Prof. Soon-Jo Chung, along with Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers, Drs. Oscar Alvarez-Salazar and Jack Aldrich, will use piezoelectric actuators distributed on the solar panels to rotate the CubeSat from one pointing direction to another. While piezoelectric actuators have been used to reduce vibrations in flexible structures such as solar arrays, the new strain actuated solar arrays (SASA) provide a fundamentally new way of controlling spacecraft pointing direction (or attitude). SASA can point spacecraft more accurately than conventional technologies such as reaction wheels. These advantages are especially important for space telescopes and other sensitive instruments. Quiet, ultra-precise pointing of space telescopes will help scientists look deeper into space, accelerating the search for exoplanets and making new types of studies possible. SASA may in the future eliminate the need for sometimes failure-prone reaction wheels. This could significantly improve spacecraft reliability, helping to avoid reaction wheel failures that have crippled important missions, such as the Kepler space telescope that is currently running in emergency mode. While they have simulated the technique, the satellite experiment provides the advantage of testing it in zero gravity, Ghosh said.

Student Aerothermal Spectrometer Satellite of Illinois and Indiana (SASSI^2)


Illinois will partner with Purdue University for SASSI^2, a $100,000 grant from the NASA Space Mission Directorate.

AE Assistant Prof. Zach Putnam and AE Prof. Debbie Levin will work with Ghosh in using a spectrometer to study the chemical reactions and chemical species present upon a CubeSat’s re-entry to Earth. The Purdue student team led by Prof. Alina Alexeenko will provide an advanced pressure sensor to show the density of the atmosphere at re-entry. “This is the kind of mission that scientists can only afford to do with a small CubeSat; we don’t want to do it with a billon dollar NASA satellite,” Ghosh said.  This environment cannot be accurately reproduced in ground-based laboratory tests and, if successful, will provide the first-of-a-kind spectra in flight since the Fire II experiment in 1965.

SpaceICE – Interface Convective Effects


In this $200,000 award from the NASA Office of Education, Illinois will provide the CubeSat for Northwestern University to conduct a freeze-casting demonstration. Northwestern wants to get into materials fabrication in space using a technique that involves freezing particle suspensions. The CubeSat would take into space particles suspended in water that will be frozen, simulating the process that would be used in space-based materials fabrication.

NASA requires the projects be completed within two years, and Ghosh estimates hands-on opportunities will be provided for up to 100 students. “It’s certainly going to be the largest, most interdisciplinary project I’ve been involved with at the university,” he said. “It validates a lot of the work we’ve been doing and is very exciting. This is a big win for Illinois.”

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