From a lab at Cal Poly into space, student-made satellites are now orbiting Earth.
A team of approximately 20 students collaborated with Stanford University and coordinated with Kosmotras, a joint company formed by the Russian and Ukranian governments, to launch three of their satellite deployment systems, called P-Pods, into space from Kazakhstan on April 17.
The P-Pods were strapped onto rockets and carried seven CubeSats, which are picosats, the smallest kind of satellite. The CubeSats carry payloads of information gathering technology or other hardware.
Included in the launch were the first two satellites designed exclusively by Cal Poly.
“It’s actually a huge accomplishment,” said aerospace engineering department chair Jordi Puig-Suari, “It’s not just that we’re launching our satellites, we’re facilitating access to space for lots of other satellites.”
He then added, “The whole concept of standardization is revolutionary to the level we’re doing it in the aerospace industry.”
Graduate engineering student Parin Patel and graduate aerospace engineering students Lori Brooks and Roland Coelho worked on the project. They helped build the satellites and coordinate their launches and now monitor them from a lab at Cal Poly while they are in space.
When asked why they collaborated with Kosmotras instead of NASA, Coelho responded, “That started back in 2001 . the Russians were the only people who would talk to us.”
Patel added that student satellites are cheap and high risk and for the CubeSat program to use a rocket, it costs a lot of money.
“It’s important to have a reputation,” Brooks said.
Roland, Brooks, and graduate aerospace student Jonathan Brown delivered the satellite hardware to Kosmotras.
“We hand-carried the satellites onto the plane with us,” Brooks said.
Patel added that a large yellow suitcase was used to carry the satellites and that, “Lori carries it because she looks innocent.”
When they arrived in Kazakhstan, Kosmotras was excited to see the satellites, Brooks said.
When asked if there were any language difficulties in coordinating with Kosmotras, Coelho responded, “They speak better English than we do Russian.”
Though in Kazakhstan at the scheduled launch date, the students did not get to see their satellites launched,
“Unfortunately, the launch was originally scheduled for March 26, but got delayed until April 17,” Coelho said. “We had a phone call about 20 minutes prior to launch and a call 15 to 30 minutes after launch to let us know how it went.”
“We were ecstatic, but it was ecstatic around a phone call,” Brooks said.
Coelho said that more exciting than the launch was anticipating a satellite flying overhead. The morning after the launch, a satellite’s orbit carried it directly over San Luis Obispo.
Right now, the students are monitoring the health and status of the satellites.
“We have to make sure our communication and power systems work,” Patel said.
Puig-Suari commented on the future of the CubeSats and the standardization of satellite technology. “What I see happening is that other standards will emerge that follow the same idea. But this one will remain,” he said. “The thing we have yet to accomplish is to provide reliable, repeatable, low-cost access to space for universities.”
The ultimate goal of the program is to have a launch every year, Puig-Suari said.