Apr 10, 2018 | By David

We’ve reported before on NASA’s exciting CubeSat initiative, which sees groups of students participating in the launching of miniature cube satellites into outer space. Teams from universities and educational institutions all over the U.S. have been included in this initiative, and the next satellites are scheduled for launch in early 2019. Recently, NASA announced 11 more research groups that will be part of the ninth round of the program, including two groups from Cornell University. The Cornell students made use of 3D printing technology in their projects, which they have named PAN (Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation) and Alpha.

(All images, source: Cornell CubeSat)

The NASA CubeSats are nano-satellites, and the smallest ones are supposed to measure about four inches on each side and weigh less than three pounds. This basic dimension is referred to as U, and other, larger CubeSats are measured according to it. Cornell’s 3D printed project, PAN, is 2x ''3U''s. They are designed to autonomously rendez-vous and dock in low-Earth orbit. The function of the PAN mission is to demonstrate the potential of the technology and to lower the barrier of entry to complex space missions, encouraging other small research labs with limited funding to have a go. The team’s satellites will also be participating in the Lunar Derby competition, with a potential prize purse of $5 million.

The CubeSats will be launched from NASA’s newest rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), which is due to send an unmanned Orion spacecraft into deep space in 2019. More CubeSats are planned for launch in 2020 and 2021. The CubeSat Launch Initiative, which started back in 2014, has so far selected 158 nano-satellites from 39 states, and launched 59 separate missions. Other selections in this ninth round include projects from UC Davis and MIT, as well as the first-ever selections from Puerto Rico and the University of Kansas.

Cornell’s student group refers to itself as the Cislunar Explorers, and is headed by Mason Peck, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. ''We are thrilled and really grateful, and even more, I think it’s important for NASA to be inspiring the nation with these opportunities'', he said. ''In many respects, it levels the playing field, democratizes access to space. This is NASA saying, 'You, too, can participate in space exploration'.''

3D printing technology enabled the team to put together a satellite propulsion system for much cheaper than would otherwise have been possible. According to Stewart Aslan, the project lead of PAN, ''Other small satellite altitude control systems with similar capabilities to ours generally cost close to $100,000 or more. We have driven that cost down to $2,500 for our mission.''

The team's satellite is made up of a number of commercially available hardware parts, as well as 3D printed components. A successful launch of PAN’s CubeSat in early 2019 could potentially be groundbreaking in terms of future implications for 3D printed satellite parts.

As for the Alpha team, their project also made use of a newly developed sail. The 1m x 1m light-sail is designed to work with the microsatellite so it will automatically unfold while in space. A light-sail is an extremely thin layer of Kapton, a very thermally stable film, that can be pushed through space by the radiation pressure generated by electromagnetic radiation. The light sail developed by the Alpha team will also contain four chip-satellites or “ChipSats” on each corner of the sail, which are an even smaller type of satellite than CubeSats.

According to project lead Liam Crotty, "Our chip-satellites allow for [localized] sensing of a very large region of space, since they can be distributed over a wide area. Furthermore, they are so cheap that they can be used more recklessly… This is a new paradigm in space exploration."

The work is far from over, however, with much more testing and modifications required before the launch in just under a year’s time. The PAN team is focusing primarily on preparing their CubeSat for a variety of launch conditions. “Every component must be tested over and over in many different situations to make sure that no matter what happens after launch, the spacecraft will function as intended,” Aslan said.

As for the Alpha team, their main challenge is powering the crucial communications systems for their tiny satellites. ''We simply don’t have much room for solar cells, so it’s hard to generate much power'', says project lead Liam Crotty. ''As a result, our radio transmissions are very weak and it takes a lot of processing power on the part of the receiver to hear the signal'' said Crotty. ''The team is working on technologies for improving the data rate by doing more sophisticated signal processing in the receiver stations.''



Posted in 3D Printing Application

Source: Cornell Sun


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