Project Will Test New Technology for Future CubeSat Missions
By Edwin L. Aguirre
If everything goes as planned, a small satellite designed and built by a team of 100 undergraduate students from the Francis College of Engineering and the Kennedy College of Sciences will be launched into orbit this fall, circling the Earth roughly every 90 minutes while traveling at nearly 28,000 kilometers per hour.
The project—named SPACE HAUC (pronounced “Space Hawk”), which stands for Science Program Around Communications Engineering with High-Achieving Undergraduate Cadres—is based on the cube satellite (CubeSat) model used worldwide for low-Earth orbit space research. The SPACE HAUC satellite is 30 centimeters (12 inches) long and weighs 4 kilograms (9 pounds). Four solar panels will be deployed in orbit to supply electricity to power the satellite’s electronics.
Work on the satellite is being conducted at the Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology (LoCSST) near East Campus. Many majors are represented on the team, including students from mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer engineering, physics, math and computer science.
“SPACE HAUC will be UMass Lowell’s first mission to go around the Earth. And it will do so many, many times during its lifetime,” says physics Prof. Supriya Chakrabarti, the project’s principal investigator and LoCSST director.
“Our goal is to train students to be the next generation of astronomers and space scientists and engineers through hands-on involvement in all phases of the mission, from instrument development to data analysis,” says Chakrabarti, who also directs UROC, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities and Collaborations program, which promotes and facilitates all student research and experiential learning on campus.
SPACE HAUC is funded with an initial $200,000 grant from NASA. Additional funding is provided by the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium and the Francis College of Engineering.
Student-driven Space Research
“SPACE HAUC is very challenging because of the size and mass constraints on the CubeSat design,” says Sanjeev Mehta, who received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2018 and decided to stay on as the team’s systems engineer.
“There’s a lot of learning involved, getting to know about the CubeSat system inside and out,” says Mehta, who is from Mumbai, India.
Progress on SPACE HAUC is going well, according to Susanna Finn, a research scientist at LoCSST who is advising the team. “Currently, the students are busy building and testing the various CubeSat components, and shortly we will be in our integration phase, assembling the whole system and testing it,” she says.
Once the satellite is flight-ready, the researchers will turn it over to Nanoracks, a Texas-based commercial CubeSat deployer, to prepare it for launch to the International Space Station (ISS), from where it will be released into orbit.
“We are aiming for launch this fall, but things can still change,” says Finn.
SPACE HAUC will be launched during a scheduled resupply mission to the ISS, either aboard a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket from the Wallops Island spaceport facility in Virginia or a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
SPACE HAUC’s goal is to demonstrate—for the first time—a student-developed communication system at high data rates in the X band using a phased array patch antenna on a CubeSat, with electronic beam steering capability. The antenna will operate at frequencies of 7.2 to 8.35 gigahertz from an orbit of about 400 kilometers. Many CubeSats transmit data to ground controllers in the S-band at an average speed of 2 to 5 megabits per second. SPACE HAUC seeks to increase that speed to 50 to 100 megabits per second.
The students plan to maintain communication links between the satellite and ground stations at the university’s Olney Science Center on North Campus and the MIT Haystack Observatory in Westford, Mass.
“There will be a Yagi antenna on top of Olney for receiving telemetry data from the satellite and a 1.8-meter dish antenna somewhere on campus for sending X-band signals to the spacecraft for beam steering,” says Mehta.
SPACE HAUC is expected to stay in orbit for a year or more before it gradually loses altitude and falls back to Earth. As it reenters the atmosphere, aerodynamic stress and heating will cause the satellite to disintegrate and burn up harmlessly high above the ground.
In addition to LoCSST and MIT Haystack, other SPACE HAUC research collaborators include the university’s Submillimeter-Wave Technology Laboratory, the Raytheon-UMass Lowell Research Institute and the Printed Electronics Research Collaborative, as well as Analog Devices, Raytheon Technologies, 4C Test Systems, BAE Systems and Draper Laboratory.
“Analog Devices has been a tremendous help by providing hardware support and technical advice,” says Mehta. “The company has been helping us build an entire communications system from scratch, testing it and making sure we can integrate it with the spacecraft. It’s amazing. Right now, I’m building a system using all their parts. It’s a great collaboration with industry.”
A Rewarding Experience
Finn says the students’ drive and dedication have impressed her from day one: “For the most part, they are volunteering their time because they enjoy the challenge. They have been very independent and self-motivated to dive right in and research and learn what they need to know.”
Mehta has been with SPACE HAUC since the project began nearly four years ago. “I started with the structures subsystem team, and I’m now working on the RF and communications systems, designing the antenna and its electronics. I’m also doing systems engineering, to make sure all the spacecraft components are working,” he says. “I love mechanical engineering, and I want to learn the most I can.”
He adds, “It’s been a great experience with SPACE HAUC. Undergraduates normally don’t get exposed to working on a real spacecraft. It’s not just a class project—it’s a real space mission. So, we’re very fortunate. We can also publish our findings in refereed journals. This will help us in the long run with our professional careers.”
“I learned a lot of things at SPACE HAUC like MATLAB and circuitry and put them into practice,” says Kelly, who is originally from Jamaica and now lives in Yarmouth on Cape Cod. “We will be thrilled to watch the satellite launch and see all of our hard work pay off.”
Kelly hopes to become an aerospace engineer at NASA after graduation. “Originally, I wanted to be a medical doctor, but after learning about robotics, I decided to enroll in mechanical engineering. I might even apply to become an astronaut.”
Sean Freeman, a mechanical engineering senior from Medford, Mass., who is co-managing the program with Mehta, joined SPACE HAUC as a sophomore. “I’ve always been interested in space exploration, so joining the group was only natural,” he says.
Freeman started working with the structures subsystem team. “I was doing a lot of design in CAD of structural pieces and components. I’m now overseeing all the teams with Sanjeev,” he says.
Freeman is also currently doing a lot of the thermal team’s tasks — determining how many layers of insulation are needed to protect the satellite from the Sun’s radiation and the temperature extremes of space.
“We need to keep the spacecraft’s interior warm enough for the electronics and battery pack to operate correctly. We’re also deciding how much of the radiators to use to dissipate heat into space, so the electronics don’t overheat. It’s a balancing act,” says Freeman, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in mechanical engineering after graduation.
“It’s amazing to think that something you’ve helped design and build with your own hands will soon be going to space and orbiting the Earth,” he says.
Freeman says his SPACE HAUC experience has given him a head start in his education. “I was using CAD to design satellite parts before I even took the class, so I was way ahead of everyone else as far as baseline knowledge of how the software works,” he says.
And Freeman believes it will also give him an edge as far as jobs go. “Not too many applicants could say they have experience working and building a NASA-funded satellite while an undergraduate, and so it would make your résumé stand out, as opposed to a regular internship. This gives you a leg up on the competition.”