Sky isn’t the limit for UH spaceflight lab

January 4th, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Cover Story  |  3 Comments

students build satellites

Mission coordinator Jeremy Chan, left, and electrical power systems engineer Reid Yamura with a model of the HawaiiSat-1 they are readying for launch.

The idea is as simple as the goal is audacious: become the only university in the world with dedicated rocket-launch capability. The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Hawaiʻi Space Flight Laboratory is well on its way to turning concept into reality.

“No other university will have the capability to fabricate satellites, make instruments, launch the satellites and have students operate the satellites in space,” says Luke Flynn, a Hawaiʻi Institute of Geophysics and Planetology specialist who serves as director of the spaceflight laboratory. “ We coordinate the whole project.”

A multidisciplinary program supported by a congressional appropriation through the Low-Earth Orbit Nanosatellite Integrated Defense Autonomous System, Hawaiʻi Space Flight Laboratory aims to promote engineering and science research for space missions; validate small spacecraft technologies; train workers to support unmanned space missions; and promote collaboration between government, academia and industry.

student building a satellite

Zachary Lee-Ho tests the altitude control system.

Flynn is program manager, representing UH as prime contractor, for the Operationally Responsive Space Office, a Department of Defense initiative focusing on smaller satellites and launch vehicles. UH will partner with NASA on small spacecraft design. UH scientists will develop instrumentation, partnering with local businesses and NASA centers when possible.

The Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauaʻi and on-site contractor, Sandia National Laboratories’ Kauaʻi Test Facility will provide the launch vehicle and support. Staff and students at Mānoa and UH’s Windward and Kauaʻi Community Colleges will participate in ground station and mission operation functions.

The first of two planned demonstration launches is a year and a half away. It will test SPARK (for space-borne payload assist rocket–Kauaʻi) and its newly designed launch rail system. The payload will be Kumu Aʻo (Hawaiian for “source of learning”), a satellite being built by Hawaiʻi students of Lloyd French, an HIGP associate specialist and spaceflight mission manager formerly with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The second launch, slated for 2013, will deploy HawaiʻiSat-1. “It will be flying a lot of UH-developed technology,” says Flynn. The UH designed satellite will carry instrumentation designed by HIGP’s Paul Lucey and Robert Wright, who has experience with satellite-based monitoring of volcanoes in HIGP and ship tracking as part of the tri-university Center for Island, Maritime and Extreme Environment Security.

students work on a satellite

Monica Umeda and Larry Martin make adjustments to the satellite they are working on

Students in Mānoa’s College of Engineering and School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology will be involved every step of the way.

Hawaiʻi Space Flight Laboratory builds on a decade of experience in small satellite design. Engineering students have been designing and fabricating their version in the UH CubeSat Laboratory.

CubeSat is a catchphrase for a miniature satellite—think Rubik’s Cube, a container about 10 centimeters on a side that fits in the palm of your hand. Working with Professor of Electrical Engineering Wayne Shiroma, students address all aspects of satellite design and function—structure, power, attitude control, command and data handling and telecommunication.

One of the keys to building a better satellite is to do more on-board processing in space, transmitting relevant answers instead of large data streams, Flynn says. “A lot of satellites in orbit now have less capacity than your cell phone.”

Another advantage of going small is agility in meeting the need for rapid deployment of instrumentation for crisis management or disaster mitigation, Shiroma adds. In 2009 he and a team that included an Oʻahu eighth grader developed a rocket payload for launch from New Mexico in a mere 45 days.

That year, UH was one of only 11 universities nationwide to receive a $110,000 award from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research’s University Nanosat Program. About 20 electrical and mechanical engineering students are designing and fabricating a radar calibration CubeSat. Under a $400,000 Office of Naval Research grant, students are developing novel antennas for a CubeSat.

The UH experience is reflected in Emergence of Pico- and Nanosatellites for Atmospheric Research and Technology Testing, an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics book co-edited by Shiroma. Chapters on microthruster propulsion, mobile ground station design, retrodirective antenna systems and starting a university small satellite program have UH authors.

Four of the nine student authors have since graduated to positions at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. Tyler Tamashiro, a UH Regents Scholar and the 2008 Hawaiʻi Student Engineer of the Year, works on launch systems. Monte Watanabe, named one of the nation’s top five electrical engineering students in 2007, is designing satellite components.

Other graduates are working with Hawaiʻi Space Flight Laboratory. Lance Yoneshige is the small satellite structure and mechanisms engineer. Jeremy Chan, Zachary Lee-Ho, Reid Yamura and Michael Menendez are all on the HawaiʻiSat-1 engineering team. Miguel Nunes is designing mission operations with Trevor Sorensen, who was mission manager for the Clementine mission to the Moon.

One of the goals of Hawaiʻi Space Flight Laboratory is to prepare students for careers in the aerospace industry, says Flynn. As director of UH’s NASA-supported Hawaiʻi Space Grant Consortium, he fosters opportunities across the UH System, such as a planned telemetry project with Kauaʻi Community College to involve students in data collection.

“The Pacific Missile Range Facility has numerous job openings for telemetry engineers and technicians,” he observes. He is also working with Kauaʻi Community College Professor Francis Takahashi on a campus lab that would participate in satellite tracking and Windward Community College Professor Joe Ciotti to involve students in outreach activities.

The collaboration dovetails nicely with the university’s EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) effort to boost educational activities that will make the United States more competitive in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Together, Space Grant and EPSCoR bring about $1 million a year to UH. Hawaiʻi Space Flight Laboratory adds another $4 to $5 million a year.

It’s an expensive business. The Hawaiʻi Space Flight Laboratory orbiters will cost $2–$3 million each and the launch itself about $10 million. Still, that’s big savings over the bulky satellites and launch vehicles currently used by government and commercial operations. And the waiting list for a ride on those launches is long.

Proving Hawaiʻi’s capability to do small satellite research and development and launch payloads could result in a new industry for Hawaiʻi, Flynn says.

“We’re looking for opportunities for companies to come in and build components,” he says. “We hope to be self-sustaining,” sharing the cost of future launches with research institutions and innovative companies who want to run experiments or test products in space.

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  1. Paul Y Seto says:

    January 21st, 2011at 5:46 am(#)

    In the article, it mentions jobs opening in the field of telemetry engineering. Can you give me the contact info to submit my application.

  2. Cheryl Ernst says:

    February 15th, 2011at 11:52 am(#)

    Hi, Paul

    The reference was to openings that occur at the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility. Here is the jobs link on the PMRF website:

  3. Cheryl Ernst says:

    March 22nd, 2011at 4:48 pm(#)

    Congratulations! Hoʻoponopono, the cube satellite built by engineering students, received national honors and a place aboard NASA rockets scheduled to launch in 2011 and 2012. The CubeSat designed and built by a 30-member team of electrical and mechanical engineering students mentored by Professor Wayne Shiroma and industry engineers placed third in the nation and earned the Most Improved award in the 2011 University Nanosatellite Program competition held in January in Albuquerque.