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Trying to build a satellite on the cheap

BY ELAINE LAFAY
Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 10, 2008

A team of students from the University's College of Engineering is designing its own amateur satellite slated to launch into space next year to take pictures of the Earth.

The project, called Michigan Multipurpose Minisat or M-Cubed, began last summer as the brainchild of three members of the Student Space Systems Fabrication Laboratory, a student aerospace design organization, said Engineering senior Kiril Dontchev, M-Cubed's project manager.

The students plan to build a "cube satellite" weighing about two pounds that will snap pictures of Earth for about a year before incinerating in the planet's atmosphere.

The satellite will attached to the back of a rocket launching out of Russia or Kazakhstan in Fall 2009 which will take it into space, said Engineering freshman Ken Gmerek, a member of the project's design team.

Dontchev said programming a satellite to take pictures and send them back to Earth was a long and complicated process involving nearly a year's worth of designing.

"You need a way to control it, a way to communicate with it, a way to power it," he said.

He said the team has a considerably smaller budget than cube satellites usually require, forcing the group to think creatively about the satellite's design. It will contain hardware purchased in local retail stores that has never been tested in space.

And instead of ordering circuitry and computer chips from space products manufacturers, the team will shop at local electronics stores. For example, the camera on the satellite is one commonly used for security systems in homes and businesses.

"It's not the normal way of taking pictures in space," Dontchev said.

To reduce costs, the University's Amateur Radio Club will share its radio communication equipment with M-Cubed so the group can communicate with the satellite while it's in space.

Gmerek said using cheaper, unspecialized parts has presented some challenges.

"It'll be risky, but it's worth the trouble," he said. "We can save thousands and thousands of dollars."

Through a simplified design, the project's total cost is estimated at about $120,000, he said.

The project is the first of its kind for the University, Dontchev said.

The M-Cubed team is one of about 60 student groups designing satellites for the CubeSat Project, a California Polytechnic State University program which does space-based university research.

CPSU will cover the $40,000 launch expenses. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration will also pick up a good chunk of the tab in the form of two research grants - one for $20,000 and a second of a value yet to be announced.

Gmerek said outside funding would cover most of the expenses to build the satellite.

Rackham student Kartik Ghorakavi, one of the chief engineers of the project, said the team would run tests on the parts it plans to use in the satellite to make sure they will be functional in space.

Tests will imitate the conditions the satellite will experience, like intense radiation from the sun, vacuum pressure and harsh temperature extremes.

"There are some glues and plastics that don't hold together in a space environment because it's a vacuum," Ghorakavi said. "So we test them all in a vacuum container, and we'll fluctuate temperatures and try to ensure they'll function in space."

But even with tests and safety precautions, success isn't guaranteed. The satellite's communication system could fail or hardware could malfunction, Gmerek said. A rocket launch failure - which can sometimes end in explosion - could halt the mission before it begins.

Once its battery life runs out and S3FL presses the "kill switch," Gmerek said, the satellite will continue to make its way around the planet for about 24 more years, when it would incinerate into Earth's atmosphere.

"We have a lot of momentum," Dontchev said, adding that the group has a lot of work to do before the launch. "This is really a perfect, flawless, has-to-work sort of deal."