CubeSat Co-Inventor Tells Students to Build, Launch Satellites into Space

Panel discussion Image by Tory Wesnofske

This year’s Moonshot symposium featured a panel discussion that included, from left, NASA Chief Scientist James Green, OrbitBeyond member Rahul Narayan, American Astronomical Society President Megan Donahue, CubeSat co-inventor Prof. Robert J. Twiggs and Research Scientist Susanna Finn of UML’s Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

We need more students, even those in high school, to design, build and launch their own satellites into space.

That was the message that Robert J. Twiggs imparted to a packed audience during the recent “Moonshot” symposium organized by UMass Lowell and the JFK Library Foundation to commemorate this year’s 50th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 11 lunar landing mission.

“By building and launching satellites, students will gain valuable hands-on experience and education in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math],” said Twiggs, an astronautical engineering professor at Morehead State University in Kentucky who co-invented the CubeSat concept for launching very small payloads (called nanosatellites) into low Earth orbit, usually by piggybacking them on commercial rocket flights, so students and others can conduct low-cost space research and experiments using off-the-shelf components.

“Since our first launch in 2003, more than 600 CubeSats have been launched so far,” said Twiggs. The satellite building effort has provided thousands of students with learning opportunities and hands-on involvement in all phases of a launch mission, from instrument design and development to data analysis.

The Moonshot event, held at University Crossing, honored the Apollo 11 mission, which fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s ambitious goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” before the end of 1969.

Guest speakers Image by Tory Wesnofske

From left: Prof. Supriya Chakrabarti, Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Julie Chen, Chancellor Jacquie Moloney and JFK Library Foundation Executive Director Steven Rothstein gave remarks at the symposium.

Nearly 200 students from Lowell, Dracut, Danvers and Billerica high schools and the KIPP Academy Lynn attended the symposium, along with dozens of UMass Lowell students, faculty and staff and the public. Twiggs took part in the panel discussion that tackled the Apollo program’s impact on society. The other panelists included NASA Chief Scientist James Green, TeamIndus founder Rahul Narayan, who is a member of the lunar transportation company OrbitBeyond Inc., and Susanna Finn, a research scientist at UML’s Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology (LoCSST). Moderating the discussion was Prof. Megan Donahue, president of the American Astronomical Society.

Green gave an overview of NASA’s space exploration efforts while Narayan shared his personal journey from working as a software developer in India to becoming a space entrepreneur and researcher. OrbitBeyond is hoping to land its privately built rover on the moon by next year.

Finn talked about the science experiments that the LoCSST team had designed and constructed on campus, including LITES, which is currently studying Earth’s upper atmosphere from its vantage point aboard the International Space Station (ISS), and PICTURE-C, which will be launched to the edge of the atmosphere this spring, using a high-latitude helium balloon. The instrument will look for Jupiter-size planets orbiting nearby stars.

Other speakers in the Moonshot program included Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Julie Chen, physics Prof. Supriya Chakrabarti and Steven Rothstein, the executive director of the JFK Library Foundation, who showed a video clip of Kennedy’s historic “Moon Speech” at Rice University in Houston in 1962 that rallied support for the budding Apollo program.

“The Apollo 11 mission was a significant advancement in space exploration, science and engineering that still has an impact on the important research and work we are doing at UMass Lowell today,” said Chakrabarti, who is the director of LoCSST.

UML’s First Satellite

Apollo’s legacy of exploration, discovery and innovation remains alive in today’s young generation of scientists and engineers, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the CubeSat program. Here at UMass Lowell, Twiggs’ CubeSat design has inspired about 100 undergraduate students from physics, math, computer science, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer engineering to work on a nanosatellite project called SPACE HAUC (pronounced “Space Hawk”), which stands for “Science Program Around Communications Engineering with High-Achieving Undergraduate Cadres.” The project is funded with a two-year, $200,000 NASA grant.

Sim Dy Image by Tory Wesnofske

UML undergraduate student Simthyrearch Dy with a scale model of the SPACE HAUC satellite.

“SPACE HAUC is progressing well,” said Finn, who is advising the team. “Currently, the students are building and testing the CubeSat components, and soon we will be in our integration and testing phase, assembling the whole system and testing it.”

Once the nanosatellite 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 at an altitude of about 400 kilometers.

Launch is currently scheduled in the fall. The mission’s goal is to demonstrate the practicality of communicating at high data rates in the X band (7.2 to 8.3 gigahertz) using a phased array of patch antennas on the CubeSat and electronic beam steering.

“The use of X-band signal has yet to be attempted in a CubeSat and, if successful, would aid future CubeSat applications and space exploration,” says Simthyrearch Dy, SPACE HAUC’s student program manager. Dy is an Honors College senior and a computer science, physics and math triple major from Lowell.

SPACE HAUC is expected to stay in orbit for about a year or more before it gradually loses altitude and falls back to Earth, disintegrating and burning up harmlessly high above the ground.

James Green NASA Image by Tory Wesnofske
Green told students about NASA’s upcoming missions to the Moon, Mars, Europa and a double asteroid system.

NASA Challenge

During the panel discussion, Twiggs noted that CubeSat has become the victim of its own success.

“CubeSat is big commercial business now,” he said. “By making it popular, the cost of satellite components went up, the price of launch went up, and we [educators] got priced out of the business.”

To keep the program accessible to students, Twiggs pressed Green for increased NASA support in terms of funding, hardware and mentorship of students by NASA scientists.

“Let me work on that challenge,” Green responded.

To the Moon and Beyond

Green also told the audience about NASA’s upcoming missions in the early 2020s, including the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), which is a partnership with the U.S. commercial space industry to deliver robotic landers and rovers to the lunar surface; the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a miniature space station orbiting the moon that will receive lunar samples from the moon’s near side and far side and serve as a steppingstone for human missions to Mars and beyond; and the Europa Clipper, whose goal is to explore Jupiter’s geologically active moon Europa and search for signs of life.

Finally, Green talked about the space agency’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, which would try to alter the direction of an approaching asteroid that could potentially collide with Earth. He said the goal of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office is to find those objects that cross Earth’s orbit.

Guest speakers2 Image by Tory Wesnofske
The inaugural Kennedy College of Sciences (KCS) Lecture Series on Science and Society was given by Charles W. Clark of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, middle, shown here with KCS Dean Noureddine Melikechi, left, and Eric Chaisson ’68.
“It’s not a matter of if they are going to impact, but when,” said Green. “We have found about 20,000 Earth-crossing asteroids that we need to keep track of, and we estimate that there are 60,000 more out there. Of those, about 980 are considered ‘planet killers’ that could destroy a significant portion of life on Earth.”

He added, “It’s an ongoing hazard, and NASA is on top of it.”

Moonshot was sponsored by the Kennedy College of Sciences (KCS), the JFK Library Foundation and tech companies Raytheon and Teradyne. It is part of the inaugural KCS “Spring into Science” event, a 12-day series of campuswide colloquia held in April and hosted by the departments of Biology, Chemistry, Math, Physics and Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

“Spring into Science” also included the first KCS Lecture Series on Science and Society sponsored by Eric Chaisson ’68 and his wife, Lola. It featured a talk by Charles W. Clark of the National Institute of Standards and Technology on April 4 entitled “Over the Rainbow,” in which Clark explained how numerous birds, insects, reptiles and aquatic animals perceive colors in the ultraviolet region of the spectrum.