NASA awarded Cal Poly and its CubeSat program its Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployers, or P-POD, service contract on Sept. 25 as a part of an educational initiative to more efficiently launch small satellites into orbit.
Cal Poly will process an indefinite number of CubeSats for five years and a maximum of $5 million according to a NASA press release.
The PolySat and CubeSat programs, headed by aerospace engineering professor Jordi Puig-Suari, have been developing for over 10 years. It originally started as a partnership with Stanford University. CubeSat eventually created an internationally accepted standard for building a type of research nanosatellite called CubeSats: roughly four-inch cubes launched into orbit by the Cal Poly designed P-POD. PolySat also makes its own CubeSats.
Cal Poly will be working in conjunction with NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) mission to provide opportunities for universities to launch research satellites into orbit without extraordinary cost or time commitment. Cal Poly will act as an intermediary preparing outside CubeSats by attaching the P-POD system and then preparing the units for NASA launches. They will also assist with environmental testing in some situations.
“The whole CubeSat thing has been a huge accomplishment but there was one thing missing,” Puig-Suari said. “That was that universities didn’t have clear access to space yet. So even though CubeSat had been very successful, there was always this thorn in our side. So this is extremely gratifying.”
Both Puig-Suari and NASA’s Senior Mission Manager Garrett Skrobot cite the ability for university students to experience all aspects of experimental satellite launch — design, building and flying — within their university career as major motivation for the program and contract. The CubeSat program makes this easier, allowing the entire satellite-creation process to be completed within two years.
“We want to see 22 and 23 year old kids having flown experimental flights,” Skrobot said. “Part of my job is to work with universities to make sure we get good science and develop the next generation of scientists.”
NASA took applicants and selected 12 CubeSats for its first launch. One of these will be Cal Poly’s own CP5 CubeSat, a satellite designed for deorbital research to understand ways to mitigate space junk currently in orbit. Requests for its second intiative will be due Nov. 15. Skrobot hopes to see 50 CubeSats on that launch.
Cal Poly students will have the opportunity to experience real space flight, as well as to interact with professional members of the industry. This includes non-profit organizations, universities and corporations that want to launch CubeSats. Graduate student Ryan Nugent and mechanical engineering senior Alicia Johnstone will be traveling to Kodiak, Alaska to consult with the Air Force on its CubeSat project on Oct. 10.
“It has a huge implication for the country since the GAS can program went away,” Puig-Suari said.
The Getaway Special program allowed groups to launch small research payloads on NASA shuttles but was canceled after the Columbia in 2003.
“(Then) there was no well defined access to space for university payloads. People would launch a satellite here and there but it was always someone running on their own,” Puig-Suari said. “So in that sense we were falling behind some of the other countries that made it easier for schools to fly and this kind of puts us back on the forefront.”
Aerospace Department Chair Eric A. Mehiel agreed that the contract puts Cal Poly on the industry’s radar.
“(PolySat and CubeSat) are doing really interesting work that for a long time was on the fringe of the industry and is really starting to become mainstream,” Mehiel said. “This contract is just an idea of how mainstream because government agencies tend to be the last on board. This shows PolySat and CubeSat are really pushing the industry.”
But now that the project has reached what Puig-Suari said is a sort of “have-arrived” moment, the majority of the next goals for Cal Poly, PolySat, and CubeSat are unknown. Puig-Suari knows one.
“Go fly,” Puig-Suari said.