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UMass Lowell Students on a NASA Mission to Build Satellite

UMass Lowell students Charles Barbon, Jacob Hulme, William Mann and Dat Le are building a satellite that space agency NASA hopes to launch in 2018.
FLYING HIGH: UMass Lowell students, overseen by physics professor Supriya Chakrabarti, are building a satellite that space agency NASA hopes to launch in 2018. Among the students on the team are, from left, Charles Barbon, Jacob Hulme, William Mann and Dat Le.

Boston Herald
By Jordan Graham

A group of UMass-Lowell students and professors will spend the next year and a half building their own satellite, ultimately sending it into orbit to test a new data transmission system, thanks to a grant from NASA.

“This is a NASA program designed to essentially make sure that we could give students a real experience with real-life problems,” said Supriya Chakrabarti, a physics professor at UMass Lowell who is leading the project. “It’s all being done from scratch.”

The $200,000 grant from NASA will pay for a 4-inch by 4-inch by 12-inch satellite — a smaller, cheaper “CubeSat” which could spend years orbiting between 500 and 600 kilometers above Earth.

It’s called SPACE HAUC — a homage to UMass Lowell’s mascot the River Hawk, short for Science Program Around Communications Engineering with High-Achieving Undergraduate Cadres. It will weigh less than nine pounds and is set to be built by about 50 students almost entirely from scratch. Chakrabarti said some components will be bought, but the solar-powered box will be entirely assembled at UMass.

“I couldn’t believe how mature they were — some of these kids are freshmen.This is exciting to see how much they’re doing and how quickly they learn,” Chakrabarti said.

He said he could have only dreamed of getting to send something into orbit as a freshman in college.

“I would think they are joking, in my day only NASA flew satellites,” he said.

Outfitted with solar panels, SPACE HAUC will include a new method of transmitting data back to earth that so far has not been included in such a small satellite — using a lower, faster frequency than most small satellites do. Chakrabarti said the communication system will send data at up to 100 megabits per second, far faster than current models. The satellite will take regular pictures of the sun and beam them down to test the data transmission.

“As a small satellite, this has never been done, to fit such a system within a small volume,” Chakrabarti said. “Once we’ve validated this technology, we could use it in future research.”

Once the SPACE HAUC is built in about 18 months, it will likely hitch a ride on a rocket carrying massive communications satellites farther into space.

Other UMass Lowell researchers are working with one of just a handful of Valkyrie robots, NASA’s humanoid robots, to improve its software. Last year, a professor got a grant to study materials that can build structures for space travel.