UML-built Satellite Is Now Flying Solo Around the Earth

CubeSats satellite in orbit
This NASA photo shows the Nanoracks CubeSat deployer releasing the Puerto Rican-made satellite, left, and SPACE HAUC into orbit.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

“SPACE HAUC has flown the coop!”

That was how Prof. Supriya Chakrabarti, director of the Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology (LoCSST), described UMass Lowell’s first satellite after it was successfully released into orbit from the International Space Station on Oct. 12.

The 12-inch-long, 9-pound satellite is now circling the Earth roughly every 90 minutes while traveling at more than 17,000 miles per hour. It has four winglike solar panels to supply electricity to the satellite’s electronics.

“SPACE HAUC is functioning, but in order for us to establish communications with the satellite consistently and predictably, we need to upgrade the UHF [ultrahigh frequency] receiving capability at one of the ground stations,” says Chakrabarti, who is the project’s principal investigator.

SPACE HAUC (pronounced “Space Hawk”) — which stands for Science Program Around Communications Engineering with High-Achieving Undergraduate Cadres — was designed, built and tested by more than 100 students from the Francis College of Engineering and the Kennedy College of Sciences over the course of five years. It is based on the cube satellite (CubeSat) model used worldwide for low-Earth-orbit space research.

SPACE HAUC was launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Aug. 29 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral, Florida, as part of the ELaNa 37 (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) payload for SpaceX’s Dragon cargo ship. This was Dragon’s 23rd commercial resupply mission for NASA, delivering thousands of pounds of new science experiments, supplies, spare parts and equipment for the space station’s crew.

Aside from SPACE HAUC, the ELaNa 37 payload also included CubeSats from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico. All three were released the same day using a special CubeSat deployer made by Nanoracks, a Houston-based company contracted by NASA to package small research payloads for delivery to the International Space Station.

The SPACE HAUC project was funded with an initial $200,000 grant from NASA. Additional funding was provided by the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium and the Francis College of Engineering.

“Our goal is to train students to be the next generation of astronomers, space scientists and engineers through hands-on involvement in all phases of the mission, from instrument development to data analysis,” says Chakrabarti. “I’m extremely proud of the work done by our students on SPACE HAUC.”

Groundbreaking Technology for Future CubeSat Missions

The SPACE HAUC mission aims to demonstrate — for the first time — the feasibility of a student-developed radio communication system at high data rates in the X band range of the electromagnetic spectrum, using a phased array of 16 patch antennas on the CubeSat. The antennas will operate at frequencies of 7.2 to 8.3 gigahertz from an altitude of about 250 miles.

CubeSats satellites in orbit
SPACE HAUC slowly drifts away from the International Space Station.
Many CubeSats transmit data to ground controllers in the lower-frequency 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 a communication link between the satellite and ground stations on the roof of Olney Science Center on North Campus and at the MIT Haystack Observatory in Westford, Massachusetts.

“SPACE HAUC’s patch antennas all have to work together like a marching band,” says Chakrabarti. “We can send data to the satellite anywhere and electronically maneuver it in space, a technique called beam steering.”

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 re-enters the atmosphere, aerodynamic stress and heating will cause the satellite to disintegrate and burn up harmlessly, high above the ground.

Aside from LoCSST, 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, Draper Laboratory and MIT Haystack Observatory.

Hands-on Training Beyond the Classroom

“It was exciting to watch SPACE HAUC’s deployment, and I’m glad it is finally in orbit,” says Mitchell Bailey, a senior majoring in computer science and minoring in aerospace studies who worked on the satellite’s flight software and most of the ground station’s code.

“Working on SPACE HAUC was a great learning experience,” he says. “It was challenging, but it gave me opportunities to develop my skills in programming and team building. SPACE HAUC also expanded my knowledge in a variety of fields, including radio frequency design, satellite design and complex system assembly.”

Sanjeev Mehta ’18, mechanical engineering sophomore Nicholas Carnes and physics Ph.D. student Sunip Mukherjee checked the satellite’s electronics
From left, SPACE HAUC program manager Sanjeev Mehta ’18, mechanical engineering sophomore Nicholas Carnes and physics Ph.D. student Sunip Mukherjee checked the satellite’s electronics inside the clean room facility of the Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology near East Campus following a pre-launch vibration test in June.
Bailey, who was awarded fellowships by the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium in spring and summer of 2021, plans to enroll in a Ph.D. program in aerospace engineering at UML after he graduates next spring. The Francis College of Engineering and the Kennedy College of Sciences plan to offer the new program starting in the fall of 2022 in response to strong demand for skilled aeronautical engineers and space scientists.

“Space, astronomy and aerospace have been my passion since I was a child,” Bailey says. “I’m very excited that I will get to pursue a doctorate in aerospace.”

“Students normally don’t get exposed to working on a real spacecraft,” says Sanjeev Mehta, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2018 and served as the team’s program manager.

“SPACE HAUC is not just a class project—it’s a real space mission. So, we’re very fortunate,” says Mehta, who started a new job this past summer as a project systems engineer for the University of New Hampshire’s own undergraduate CubeSat program.

“I learned a lot of things at SPACE HAUC like MATLAB and electronic circuitry and put them into practice,” says Shanice Kelly, a mechanical engineering and physics double major who hopes to become an aerospace engineer at NASA after graduation. “I might even apply to become an astronaut.”

“It’s amazing to think that something you had helped design and build with your own hands is now orbiting the Earth,” says Sean Freeman ’20, ’21, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering and co-managed the SPACE HAUC project with Mehta.

In July, Freeman landed a job as an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where he will help conduct structural dynamics testing and analysis of large booster rockets for the U.S. space program.

Freeman credits his experience with SPACE HAUC for giving him the knowledge and hands-on training to embark on his new career.

“SPACE HAUC was one of the projects that I talked about during my job interview,” he says. “They feel that I have the experience in doing computer analysis and vibration testing for the rocket components. So, I’m now going to apply what I learned to my new job.”