Editor’s note: See a November 19, 2013 update to this story below
A team of engineering students from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa has built a satellite and it is headed to space.
“You know there is some anxiety but I think more than anything, more than happiness, it is relief,” said Larry Martin, a UH Mānoa graduate student and project program manager. “It’s finally going to be in the end point. We see this thing into space and we will be able to talk to it from the ground, here on earth. I think that’s the exciting part.”
About 30 students from the UH Mānoa College of Engineering’s Small Satellite Program, established by Professor Wayne Shiroma in 2001, have spent the last three years designing and building a cube satellite, or CubeSat, from scratch. Dubbed Hoʻoponopono 2 or H2, it measures 4 inches by 4 inches by 13 inches, about the size of a loaf of bread, and weighs less than 9 pounds.
“The idea here is to downscale that type of satellite to be something that can fit literally in the palm of your hand,” said Martin.
“Many universities don’t actually climb up that tree,” said fellow graduate student Windell Jones, who is the attitude control subsystem and structural subsystem engineer on the project. “We are one of the few universities. We are actually pushing that envelope.”
H2’s experimental mission is to perform radar calibration and performance monitoring for U.S. Department of Defense radar stations that track various objects in space. That task was previously carried out for the past 20 years by a satellite that is 20 times larger and 40 times more expensive than H2. That satellite recently failed in orbit, leaving the radar community without a dedicated calibration satellite.
“We want them [the radar stations] to do that [tracking] with the highest possible accuracy,” said Martin. “So our satellite enables them to do that.”
As part of the calibration process, H2 uses a high-accuracy GPS that collects position data to form an orbital model. Telemetry and data is transmitted to the ground via a deployable communications antenna. The attitude control subsystem de-spins H2 after being inserted into orbit and uses a deployable gravity gradient boom to point the satellite at the ground during its mission.
Using the Earth’s magnetic field and the sun, H2 uses sensors to calculate the direction it points in space. Due to the tight size constraints, much of H2 is custom designed and built by the team. Many aspects of H2 are ambitious for such a small satellite and represents the level of talent that can found at UH.
NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) Program accepted a UH proposal to launch the satellite after Hawaiʻi placed third in the Air Force’s University Nanosatellite Program competition in 2011, competing against schools like MIT, Cornell and Michigan Tech. The Minotaur 1 rocket that will carry H2 to orbit includes CubeSats from 11 universities and colleges and is scheduled to launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on November 4, 2013.
H2’s orbit will be circular at an inclination of 40.5 degrees and altitude of 500 kilometers. The mission lifetime goal is one year, but at this altitude H2 is expected to be in space for several years.
“You have the technical challenge, but then you even have the management challenge, the life challenge, everything at once,” said UH Mānoa graduate student Nick Fisher, the systems engineer on the project. “We are full time engineering students and we are building a satellite at the same time. It’s difficult.”
But the students say it has been worth every minute of the thousands of hours spent on the project.
“This project put my theoretical work into practice and makes it tangible,” said Jones.
“What I like about this lab is that it helps with our actual real work experience instead of just the book knowledge that the classes teach us,” said Brian Fewell, a UH Mānoa freshman working the project.
“The skills that are gained doing the work that we do, it’s the real thing,” said Martin. “It’s the same thing that companies out there are doing today. That’s what they are looking for and that’s the value I think I see in this project.”
UH’s Hoʻoponopono 2 launched on a Minotaur rocket at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia on November 19, 2013.