LAS CRUCES Engineering students at New Mexico State University are working with aerospace industry leader Northrop Grumman on projects that might one day solve military and commercial satellite missions using CubeSats—miniature spacecraft that have the huge impact and promise of our lives today. More to come.
This interdisciplinary endeavor, which began in fall 2019, is led by Stephen Stuchage, interim chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Hyeongjun Park, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. This came through discussions with Christopher Long, an NMSU engineering graduate and former Vice President of National Security Systems at Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems. Long also serves on the College of Engineering’s Executive Advisory Board.
Northrop Grumman awarded a scholarship to NMSU in fall 2019 for engineering students to work on a satellite alignment system and space maneuvers. The project has been extended by two years due to the pandemic and plans call for applications for renewal when the grant expires in the spring of 2022. The ultimate goal is to launch CubeSats that can be aligned and docked.
“They’re looking at self-docking of satellites,” said Stochaj, who is also the director of the NanoSat Lab at NMSU. They have huge military satellites and when they run out of fuel, for example, they need to dock with another satellite to refuel. In theory, they do this while they’re still in orbit, but there’s the pull of the sun, the moon’s pull, and the Earth isn’t quite round, so it’s really hard for satellites to stay in position. Some of these satellites are the size of a car. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
More from NMSU:Student IT group NMSU won a national award
In addition to refueling, there are a lot of things small satellites can do, such as servicing in orbit, repairing broken spacecraft, or manufacturing in space. The aerospace industry uses smaller and smaller devices. But Stochaj pointed to future opportunities in commercial and military applications from providing connectivity to operations.
CubeSats are compact, built from aluminum modules with standard dimensions of approximately 10cm x 10cm x 10cm (just shy of four inches square) and typically weigh less than 3 pounds per unit. Can be installed in a group of up to 24 units. Due to its small size and weight, it is easier to launch and less expensive as a payload on a rocket.
The advantages offered by these small spacecraft also face the biggest challenges – they cannot use large components, actuators or large thrusters. The built-in CPU is small and limited so it can’t operate at the same level as the larger satellites.
Park, director of Robotics, Unmanned Vehicles and Intelligent Systems CONtrol Lab (RUVICON Lab), said students are developing techniques for autonomous rendezvous using the satellite’s optical alignment system.
They are using algorithms with two CubeSats – one being the target and the other being imaged. The target CubeSat will have five LEDs attached, one for each corner and one in the middle. The CubeSat imaging device with a high-quality camera takes pictures of the subject to know its position in relation to the shooting. Both CubeSats can align with each other.
More from NMSU:NMSU Young Women in Computing celebrate 15 years
“In addition to the alignment, we’re looking forward to docking,” Stochaj said. “One of our students had the idea of using electromagnets to link satellites together, which are smaller, lighter and gentler than the robotic arms that were used. Northrop Grumman liked this idea and scaled up the projects.”
Once the project is ready, Stochaj and Park will apply for CubeSats to grab the “rideshare” on a missile launch. The NASA CubeSat program provides opportunities for small satellites to fly on rockets as auxiliary payloads on pre-planned missions.
This wouldn’t be the first time an NMSU-engineered small satellite has been launched into space. The SmallSat program, led by former NMSU engineering professor Steve Horan Stochaj, began in 2001. The Horan Three-Corner Cube mission won the Air Force Research Laboratory’s first NanoSat competition, and received a launch opportunity from the Air Force.
Stochaj and Park joined forces in 2018, when Park was appointed to the NMSU, receiving SmallSat funding from NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Air Force Research Laboratory.
For the current Northrop Grumman project alone, Stochaj estimates there were approximately 75 students participating through the Graduate Design Projects (required for all engineering students) along with the Student Satellite group and a few computer science students.
“Mechanical and aerospace engineering students learn orbital mechanics and spacecraft dynamics and control so they know how to control spacecraft and how to design spacecraft, but there are a lot of sensors and electronic equipment that requires electrical engineering students skills. Also, we need computer science and astronomers for tasks Scientific: This CubeSat project involves a group of students from both engineering and science, Park said.
Park explained that during the projects’ inaugural meeting, Northrop Grumman’s innovative technology team indicated that they wanted to test some of their components in space with CubeSats. “For them, it’s a really good opportunity to test because the students are going to develop these CubeSats and then if they provide some of the components that need near space certification in space flight. It’s a huge benefit for both sides.”
More from NMSU:NMSU economics professor: Don’t wait for holiday shopping
The relationship provides benefits and opportunities for students with the company.
“They want to develop a workforce for space engineering,” Park said. “In a way, they develop brand loyalty for students to work in their company. Students’ understanding of the complexities of this industry makes them highly valued employees. It really is a great investment in the talents of the students.”
Stochaj noted that two students have already been offered employment by the company.
“This is an internship for these students while they are in school,” Stochaj said. “You can’t say how important this is to students. It’s hard to define student majors at first, but this provides an opportunity for cross-training in real-world experience. This kind of experience gives students an extra factor that will expand their opportunities in industry and academia.”
“Now is the new space age,” Park said. “With companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and at Las Cruces Virgin Galactic, it’s a new era for aerospace engineering.”
The EYE ON RESEARCH program is provided by New Mexico State University. This week’s article was written by Linda Frisco of the College of Engineering. She can be reached at 575-646-7416 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adsgeni code is : 748912