NASA Space Grant Funds Satellite Engineering and Thermal Imaging

Undergraduate Student Instrument Program funds student-built CubeSats to image urban heat islands.

(Image courtesy of NASA.)

(Image courtesy of NASA.)

CubeSats – small, box-shaped satellites – may not be a new thing, but for many students they embody at least a taste of the dream of visiting space.

Giving students this opportunity is one of the reasons programs like NASA’s Undergraduate Instrument Program (USIP), offered through the Space Grant and Fellowship Program, are so important.

The other main benefit to these programs, besides encouraging the pursuit of engineering and science, is the opportunity for students to gain extensive experience in working within an industry setting and running a technological development project from beginning to end.

The USIP received 89 proposals and has awarded more than $8 million to 47 undergraduate teams selected from the applications.  Award amounts vary from $50,000 to $200,000, depending on the project.

The technology and devices produced by these teams will fly on a variety of orbital and suborbital vehicle platforms, including CubeSats, sounding rockets, aircraft, balloons and other commercial flight platforms.  

NASA will be covering all the associated launch and flight costs as well, which means the student teams can focus on what they do best: tackling the engineering and scientific challenges of developing their projects.

Thermal Imaging with the Phoenix Team at Arizona State University

“Phoenix” team photo using thermal imaging (from left): Brody Willard, Jesus Acosta, Raymond Barakat, Bradley Cooley, Elora Mastison, Sarah Rogers, Judd Bowman, Giana-Maria Parisi, William Merino, Ryan Fagan. (Image courtesy of Jaime Sanchez de la Vega/Arizona State University.)

While NASA’s many student STEM initiatives often offer the chance to explore the final frontier, not everyone is aiming at something so distant.  Many teams focus on projects much closer to home.

The Arizona State University (ASU) “Phoenix” team, which received a full $200,000 grant for their project, is one such case.  

Their project involves designing and building a 3U CubeSat that will use thermal infrared imaging to perform research on how the effects of human activity and weather combine to create urban heat islands around Phoenix, Arizona, as well as several other cities.

Their aim with this project is to demonstrate how nanosats can effectively conduct scientific investigations of urban environments. They also want to examine the ways in which routine orbital imaging of urban environments can increase understanding of the effect urbanization has on land-atmosphere interactions, air quality, hazard assessment and other climate factors.

“This project is history in the making,” said the project’s principal investigator Judd Bowman, an associate professor at ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. “No undergraduate student group at ASU has run a satellite in space before.”

Students will be working in labs within the School of Earth and Space Exploration, as well as the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. The satellite will be fabricated by ASU’s Sun Devil Satellite Lab and controlled from the mission operations center on the ASU Tempe campus.

“These students will be working on a real project, using a real process, with real risk and the pressure to actually deliver,” says Bowman.

Engineering, Collaboration and Communication

Engineering undergraduates on the team will design and construct the satellite.  However, their part is only one aspect of the project’s interdisciplinary structure. The engineering team will work with students from other schools and programs at ASU including geographical sciences, urban planning, sustainability and journalism and communication.

“Our project is enriched by a collaboration of schools at ASU spanning engineering, science and the arts,” said Jaime Sanchez de la Vega, a sophomore in aerospace engineering and the team’s chief engineer. “This diverse involvement allows our mission to have a much greater impact than any of the participating schools could have by itself.”

The ASU “Phoenix” team in visible light (from left): Parisi, Barakat, Ochoa, Merino, Fagan, Stewart, Saboi, Czerwinski, Rogers, Bowman, Sanchez de la Vega, Cooley and Khuller. (Image courtesy of C. Bowman.)

The ASU “Phoenix” team in visible light (from left): Parisi, Barakat, Ochoa, Merino, Fagan, Stewart, Saboi, Czerwinski, Rogers, Bowman, Sanchez de la Vega, Cooley and Khuller. (Image courtesy of C. Bowman.)

The Phoenix team consists of more than 25 undergraduate students across all phases of the project, from designing, building and operating the satellite, to promotion, public relations and outreach initiatives.

This gives the students an opportunity to learn from each other and to see how different aspects of a project rely on one another. This makes the project feel more like a real-world situation, where no person or team works alone, but instead everyone has a part to play.

After all, engineering the technology is only part of the task; communicating and sharing your innovations with the world is the other half of the equation.

“The public outreach component of the mission is one of the most essential parts of the project,” said Sarah Rogers, a freshman in aerospace engineering and the team’s project manager. “It connects people directly to what is being done at ASU.”

More High-Altitude Science and Engineering

 (Image courtesy of NASA.)

(Image courtesy of NASA.)

Of course, ASU’s Phoenix team is only one of the many exciting projects included in the USIP initiative.  Other university teams’ projects span a range of technologies and scientific objectives. 

In keeping with today’s theme, below are a few of the other exciting CubeSat-related projects being funded through USIP:

Arc-Ignition “Green” Thruster for SmallSats

Mechanical, aerospace, electrical and computer engineers from Utah State University in Logan are collaborating with mechanical and civil engineers at Alabama A&M University in Huntsville to design, build and flight-test an innovative arc-ignition, green-propellant CubeSat thruster system.

During their test flight, the team will assess the restart-capability and vacuum performance of their space thruster prototype currently under development at Utah State University. They will be collecting measurements on the potentially harmful effect of plume contamination of spacecraft optical sensors, external electronics and solar panels.

HuskySat I – Precursor for a Lunar Magnetic Field Mapper CubeSat

Students from the colleges of engineering and the environmental sciences plan to build a 3U CubeSat featuring onboard plasma propulsion and high gain telemetry for Low Earth Orbit. This is the first step toward an ultimate goal of improved, extensive mapping of solar system objects, including lunar magnetic anomalies.  This first step will be a precursor to the attempt at a larger 6U CubeSat planned for orbital insertion around the moon, as part of NASA’s CubeQuest Centennial Challenge.

CubeSat Demonstrating Radiation Tolerant Computer Technology

Students from mechanical, electrical and computer engineering will collaborate with an interdisciplinary team to create a 3U CubeSat demonstrating novel radiation-tolerant computer technology. This project is the next step for a computer system that has been in development at MSU for the past eight years through a number of NASA-funded projects.

The list goes on, so if you want to see the full accounting of undergraduate projects being funded through NASA’s USIP, check out NASA’s announcement here.