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New Mexico State University professor and students

When NASA launches three miniature satellites in the summer of 2003, the trio's communications system will have components familiar to any amateur radio operator, said Stephen Horan, a professor at New Mexico State University's Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

New Mexico State University electrical engineering technician Larry Alvarez (left) and Stephen Horan, a professor in the university's Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, show a piece of the communications equipment they built for three

Horan said a team from New Mexico State built the communications system for the experimental satellites out of parts they ordered from catalogues.

"The design was based on experiments we did in the laboratory and we stripped everything we didn't need off the components, but the components themselves would be familiar to any amateur radio builder who regularly orders out of catalogs," he said.

Working with Horan were Larry Alvarez, a New Mexico State electrical engineering technician; Michael Jourdan, an electrical engineering major; and Allison Silva, an engineering technology major.

Three Corner Sat mission, which uses the miniature "nanosatellites," is a joint project of New Mexico State, the University of Colorado at Boulder, Arizona State University and NASA. The three satellites will be launched in a stack configuration from a space shuttle in 2003 and will then separate to form a "virtual formation." According to NASA, the goal is to demonstrate stereo imaging, formation flying and innovative new on-board software that makes some of its own decisions based on data from sensors such as cameras.

The Continuous Activity Scheduling, Planning, Execution and Replanning (CASPER) software builds on previous NASA efforts to use artificial intelligence to control spacecraft. The CASPER software was built by personnel at the University of Colorado at Boulder, but the communications system that transmits information to CASPER from Earth and between the three satellites is the work of Horan and his colleagues at New Mexico State.

"A computer in each satellite, a control computer at Colorado University and computers at ground stations here and at Arizona State send data back and forth over the radio link we designed. The transmitter and receiver are a single unit about the size of a cell phone," Horan said.

"We're not using amateur radio frequencies, but the units were easy to modify into the frequencies we're using," he added.

Once the satellites are launched, personnel at a ground station on the New Mexico State campus, along with personnel at Arizona State and the University of Colorado-Boulder, will help monitor the satellites' program and transfer data from their respective ground stations, Horan said.

While it is unusual to order catalog parts for a NASA project, Horan said, he and his colleagues decided to do it this time because of the deadlines and bare-bones budget of the Three Corner Satellite project.

"Normally, the radios for a project like this would cost between $20,000 and $50,000. Ours cost roughly $500 each. Satellites normally cost over $1 million, but we were given about $100,000 for each satellite on this project," he said.

Funding for the project comes from the U. S. Air Force Office of Sponsored Research, the Defense Advanced Projects Agency and NASA. Technical support has been provided by the Air Force and NASA.