The Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer (P-POD) will hitch a ride on a multi-million dollar government satellite.
“For NASA to put trust in Cal Poly and our team of engineers on this launch is tremendous,” said Roland Coelho, the research associate with the CubeSat program, at Cal Poly.
Students have been involved in the satellite-building program on campus, PolySat, since it began in 1999.
The CubeSat Program is a collaboration of more than 40 universities, high schools and private firms that are developing the small, two-pound satellites. At 4 inches tall and 4 inches wide, CubeSats are designed to be a cost-effective, risk-tolerant form of testing satellite-to-satellite communication and new technologies, Coelho said.
Cal Poly has never before participated in a NASA-sponsored launch. The biggest hurdle for the team was to receive NASA’s permission to be a part of the mission, Coelho said. NASA’s missions are too expensive to risk interference from a university’s project, he said.
The P-POD is a toaster-sized box that launches smaller satellites, or CubeSats, into orbit using a spring trigger. The box is 1-foot-5 inches tall with tracks on all four corners to load and secure the satellites. The P-POD can launch three CubeSats at once. Like a dart gun, the satellites are enclosed in the box until a trigger is activated to release the door and use the spring to launch them into space.
Cal Poly students created the deployment system to allow more missions a less expensive method of aerospace research.
A partnership among Cal Poly, Montana State University, University of Colorado and the Kentucky Space Consortium developed the CubeSats for the upcoming launch.
The P-PODs that will be used on this mission are the result of a body of research and development that began at Cal Poly in 2003.
Almost 20 P-PODs have been launched so far, said Ryan Nugent, lead systems engineer for the Cal Poly CubeSat Program. The Vandenberg mission will be the seventh P-Pod launch in the world. Out of the seven, only one failed due to a satellite malfunction in a 2006 Russian launch.
Cal Poly’s design stands apart from similar devices from aerospace corporations because of its frequent visits in space, Nugent said.
“Only ours is flight proven,” he said.
Since the CubeSat Program is entirely student-run, P-PODs are tested on campus. Aerospace engineers conduct technical research for the mission using Cal Poly facilities in areas including thermodynamics and vacuum conditions. The program puts degrees like Coelho’s to work in the industry.
“Cal Poly is unique among other institutions for its satellite testing facilities,” Coelho said.
Bob Twiggs, a Stanford professor, and Jordi Puig-Suari, a Cal Poly aerospace engineering professor, developed the idea for CubeSats more than 10 years ago, and the program has since been expanded to institutions all over the world. The Vandenberg launch, however, will be the first launch of the P-POD that Cal Poly students will be able to watch.
The P-PODs that will accompany NASA’s satellite are the third revision of the original design, said Nugent, who is directing the improvement.
“We are currently revising the P-POD to be more flexible for CubeSats,” Nugent said.
More than 100 developers are building versions of CubeSats in more than 30 countries. The result is a large variation among sizes, weights and materials. By creating a standard for CubeSats to meet in order to be compatible with the P-POD, more companies will have the opportunity to enter space.
Cal Poly is creating a model for CubeSat makers to follow in order to reduce the technical challenges for unique satellites. Coelho’s research is targeted at giving more companies the opportunity to reach space by designing a more flexible deployment system.
A company’s satellite must be compatible with its launcher in order to be sent into orbit.
“Essentially, if you fit in the box you will fly,” Coelho said.
Companies pay Cal Poly for the use of P-PODs in each launch. A single CubeSat usually costs $40,000 to be launched from the P-POD, said Stephanie Wong, integration engineer for the PolySat program. The money is used for improving and building more, she said.
The funding generated from P-PODs help provide current students and those who have graduated an opportunity to continue working on the project.
“Project managers at NASA always wanted to do something like this to give students a chance to get to space,” Coelho said.
This article was written by Hope Hanselman.