Emerging from SOCEM will be Kentucky Space’s ADAMASat, the Antenna Deployment and Mono-filament Actuator Satellite, and another satellite developed by students at California Polytechnic State University. ADAMASat is twice the size of the Cal Poly satellite at 4 by 4 by 8 inches. Both are based on the CubeSat specification, which typically take the form of a 4-inch cube weighing around 2 pounds. Because CubeSats are small and usually consist of less expensive, off-the-shelf commercial electronics components, they are an attractive option for university-based research into space applications. “CubeSats have really revolutionized the development of small spacecrafts in the past few years,” says Lumpp. The CubeSat standard was developed by Cal Poly and Stanford University beginning in the late 1990s.
The Kentucky Space consortium combines the resources and capacity of UK, Morehead State University, the University of Louisville, Western Kentucky University, Murray State University, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, the Kentucky Space Grant Consortium, Belcan Corporation and managing partner Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation. Most of this expertise comes together at the Space Systems Laboratory, supported by the electrical and computer engineering department of the UK College of Engineering.
The laboratory consists primarily of undergraduate and graduate students in computer engineering, computer science, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering, but it is not limited to those disciplines. Students from chemical engineering, the Gatton College of Business and Economics and the College of Arts and Sciences have all made significant contributions to projects as well.
“I’ve always been interested in space,” says Anthony Karam, a senior mechanical engineering student who helped design hardware for SOCEM’s ejection system. He joined the SOCEM team in the summer of 2009, and values the interdisciplinary nature of the Space Systems Laboratory. “I’m working right alongside undergraduate and graduate students from many different fields,” Karam says. “We’re all on the same team.” One of the most valuable things he’s learned is the value of “systems engineering” — the importance of documentation, good project planning and teamwork.
Daniel Erb agrees. He’s an electrical engineering graduate student who’s been involved with Kentucky Space since the summer of 2006, when he was an undergraduate at Murray State. “One of our goals is to be able to manufacture and test everything here in the state of Kentucky,” he says. That has led to the development of a distributed team — Morehead has many scientific instruments, a ground station and communication experience, while U of L has many computer science students with extensive experience in programming public interfaces. Getting these disparate teams to work together is a big priority.
“We get to do things that not a lot of other people have done,” Erb says. “One of the best things is that we’ll be able to say that we have built things that have gone into space.” Erb hopes that the increasing expertise being created by the Space Systems Laboratory and other Kentucky Space initiatives will lead to a “positive feedback loop — it could keep growing and growing, just like Silicon Valley in the 1990s.”
In addition to Erb and Karam, many other faculty, staff and students helped make SOCEM possible. The team was also led by electrical and computer engineering students Samir Rawashdeh and Jason Brather, graduate mechanical engineering student Twyman Clements and space sciences major Nathan Fite at Morehead State University. “Launching hardware into space is quite challenging,” says Lumpp. Echoing Erb, he hopes that “by providing these standards and demonstrating these capabilities, these students are blazing a trail to space that other university and industrial teams can follow.”
The next steps
In March and May, two space shuttle missions will take new hardware to the International Space Station. “We are very proud to have hardware fly on the space shuttle and then be operated by astronauts on the International Space Station, the most advanced laboratory platform ever developed,” Lumpp says.
The NanoRack, built by students and faculty at the University of Kentucky’s Space Systems Laboratory, is about the size of a microwave oven. It contains smaller experimental lab modules and provides an interface between them and the space station’s power, mechanicaland communications systems. The rack can support up to 16 of the “CubeLabs,” designed to size and weight specifications based on the CubeSat standard.
It’s part of a new joint venture between Kentucky Space and NanoRacks, LLC, a fast-paced enterprise focused on small entrepreneurial and educational space opportunities. NanoRacks, LLC has partnered with Kentucky Space to help design and test the new system.
“UK will be playing an important role in the design of these new systems that will allow many CubeLabs from many different contributors to be launched together to space,” says Dr. Larry Holloway, chair of the department of electrical and computer engineering at UK and the TVA Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “It is signifcant that Kentucky Space is recognized by being chosen as a partner for this.”
“We have been developing spacecraft for several years and have developed several sub-orbital and orbital spacecraft,” Lumpp says. However, the CubeSats developed so far at UK have only passively transmitted data back to locations on Earth. The CubeLabs will be unique: instead of unmanned flights, these are designed for the manned space program. “This is a new domain for us,” he says. “Developing hardware that will be operated by astronauts brings its own unique challenges and opportunities.”
Using the CubeSat design concept as a basis for developing a new type of space-based laboratory is exactly what NanoRacks, LLC had in mind when it chose to partner with UK. “Our business model seeks to encourage entry-level space station research at affordable prices,” stated Jeffry Manber, managing director of NanoRacks, LLC. “By adopting a known and widely-used platform for industrial and educational space research, we expect to stimulate a new generation of space station users, just as CubeSats have done for microsatellites.”
The partnership will be very beneficial to UK and the Space Systems Lab, Lumpp says. “We now have two roles to play. We can build CubeLabs we want to fly inside the NanoRacks system. But we’re also going to act as the integrators for any other universities or companies that want to build CubeLabs,” he says. This means doing things such as environmental or electrical testing to make sure the CubeLabs meet the standard and will function well once placed on the microgravity environment of the International Space Station.
Twyman Clements,who has been involved in both the NanoRacks and SOCEM projects, traveled with Lumpp to deliver the finished rack to NASA in December. “Most people sit in physics and math classes and say, ‘I’ll never get to use this,’” he says. “I really use all of my math—everything you think you won’t.” Clements has been part of the effort to develop the NanoRack system since the partnership was announced last fall. “I love my job,” he says. He cited the NanoRack partnership as one way Kentucky Space is helping create new industries and jobs in Kentucky.
In addition to Clements and Erb, other graduate students involved in the project include Jason Bratcher, Meetra Torabi and Samir Rawashdeh, all from electrical engineering. Undergraduate students Max Bezold from chemical engineering, Anthony Karam from mechanical engineering and Jason Rexroat from computing engineering are also working hard in the Space Systems Laboratory.
The first NanoRack system will launch on the space shuttle Discovery for an 11-day mission to the International Space Station on in March. The group is also developing their first free-flying orbital satellite, called KySat-1. This mission will mark a milestone: it will be the first NASA mission to launch a student-built satellite. KySat-1 is scheduled to fly on a NASA mission in late 2010.