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Small satellites hold big potential

Small is big when it comes to next-generation satellites.

Electrical engineering students Brian Duenas, center, and Lee Finley, right, and Professor Stephen Horan work on the latest nanosatellite project. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

and lightweight, nanosatellites are easier and less expensive to launch into orbit than traditional satellites. It's like pushing a microwave oven into space instead of a minivan.

But the little satellites' potential is large. Faculty and students at New Mexico State University are in the initial stages of designing and building a small satellite with a robotic arm that could be used - for instance - to grab and dock with another satellite for servicing.

NMSU researchers and students already have two nanosatellite projects under their belts - one for which they designed the communications system and one that will measure ultraviolet reflections from the earth as part of an effort to learn more about mysterious cosmic rays.

As the X Prize Cup competition draws aerospace entrepreneurs to southern New Mexico and the Southwest Regional Spaceport being developed north of Las Cruces, the possibilities for putting small satellites and other student-built payloads into space grow more interesting.

"My vision is to have a stable of student-built payloads here at NMSU" that could fly on rockets and space planes to be launched from the spaceport, said Stephen Horan, head of NMSU's Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a leader of the university's aerospace research cluster.

In addition, Horan said, the university can develop the capabilities for testing, preparing - and repairing, if necessary - payloads built by others for launching at the spaceport.

New Mexico State's involvement in the nanosatellite arena began a few years ago when the university teamed with the University of Colorado and Arizona State University on an Air Force-funded project to design and build three nanosatellites that would fly in a constellation. This Three-Corner Satellite Project was designed to use digital cameras to capture stereo images of cloud formations. NMSU designed and built the communications system, to test the capabilities of inexpensive, commercial-grade components in space.

Three-Corner Sat was launched in late 2004 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., aboard an experimental rocket, but the rocket under-performed and the satellites never made it into orbit.

The university's next nanosatellite project was an all-NMSU venture with a scientific payload important to NASA's program to search for ultra-high-energy cosmic rays.

"NASA wants to build a large space-based detector to look for ionization tracks made in the atmosphere as cosmic rays pass through," said Steve Stochaj, the science coordinator on the project. Because the light given off by the cosmic rays is in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, designers of the detector need to know how much background ultraviolet radiation is reflected by Earth. The NMSU satellite has two instruments to measure the ultraviolet rays, one that would look into space and one that would look down at the planet, to provide the needed benchmarks.

Like the Three-Corner Satellite project, the cosmic ray satellite was funded by the Air Force in its highly competitive university nanosatellite program, but it was not selected for launching.

"We are looking for a ride," Stochaj said. "We're talking with the Physical Science Laboratory (at NMSU) about it going as a parasite on an experimental balloon flight."

The PSL launches scientific balloons for NASA, and although a balloon flight would not put the satellite into orbit, it would give the instruments enough time above the earth's atmosphere to get the desired ultraviolet measurements.

The current project, with the goal of developing a satellite with a robotic arm, is being tackled in stages.

"The plan is to build a succession of satellites where each one is more sophisticated than the previous one," Stochaj said. "The first stage is to figure out a way to stabilize it so it isn't just tumbling through space."

Senior-level electrical engineering students in a "capstone" design course are working on the stability issue and mechanical engineering professor Ou Ma, an expert in robotics, is leading the development of the robotic arm.