News

USU sends tiny satellites to launch into orbit

By John Hollenhorst
KSL News
September 29, 2011

A few days ago, the world cowered in fear, or at least mock fear, when a six ton satellite the size of a school bus plunged out of orbit. That's old-school.

This is new-school; a 4-pound satellite, small enough to fit in your hand.

Utah State University is sending two space satellites to California Thursday for a rocket launch in late October.

Imagine a spacecraft small enough to fit in your hand. It's a reality, part of a trend in the space business that takes advantage of something we all benefit from every day when we use our cell phones and iPads.

"We're essentially using the same kinds of technologies that you find in cellphones and in iPads and consumer electronics today, which has allowed us to make a very capable, very small spacecraft," said Professor Charles Swenson, of Utah State University.

Two spacecraft fit into a box the size of a loaf of bread.

"And being able to prove that, yes, you really can take big satellite technology and make it fly on something that students built, that is definitely something that is going to be a game-changer," said Utah State University student Erik Stromberg.

On a shake-table at Utah State, the satellite twin-pack gets a shakedown cruise, intense, high-frequency vibration.

"We shake the spacecraft to simulate the environment that they're going to see when they're out on the rocket and sent into space," Swensen said.

Once in space, the satellites will unfurl antennae to monitor the geomagnetic storms that sometimes disrupt communication networks. The two tiny spacecraft will act in tandem, a sort of orbital tag team.

"So one will make a measurement in the space environment. And then the other one will come through right after and see how it's changed," Swenson said. "We have proposed missions of upwards of a hundred spacecraft to NASA as a future project that NASA might undertake."

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