UML Awarded $5.5M to Establish Space Technology R&D Hub on Campus
New Facility Will Offer One-Stop Support System for Small Satellites
By Edwin L. Aguirre
UMass Lowell was recently awarded nearly $5.5 million by the state and the Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative to develop a new hub at the university that offers one-stop support system for researchers and businesses looking to design, build and test small satellites and spacecraft components.
The consortium will be based at LoCSST’s facility in Wannalancit Business Center near East Campus. In recent years, LoCSST has launched several successful space missions, including the student-built SPACE HAUC satellite and the PICTURE-C planet-finding telescope.
The grant will support the two-year project, which is boosted by matching funds and services from external partners and collaborators. This brings the total funding for the consortium to more than $10 million.
“This is really an exciting development that I’ve been planning for a long time – how best to establish a place in Massachusetts that will serve as a center of activities for nanosatellites, such as CubeSats,” Chakrabarti says.
“Right now, we have several companies and academic institutions in the region doing their own things, but there’s no cohesive facility that brings them all together. So, I’m very honored that we now have the opportunity to create such a facility right here on campus,” he says.
MASTS is currently composed of 22 organizations, including UMass Boston, Boston University, MIT Haystack Observatory, the University of Arizona, United Arab Emirates University and the University of New Brunswick in Canada, as well as Massachusetts-based Holyoke Community College and Middlesex Community College.
Corporate partners include Analog Devices, Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems, as well as research-focused small- and medium-sized enterprises such as AstronetX, Boston Micro Machines, Greensight, Nanoracks, Si2 Technologies and 4C Test Systems. Research-focused non-profits MITRE Corp., the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium, the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, the NASA Wallops Flight Facility and CASTRA, a Bulgarian consortium, are also involved.
“This is a wonderful opportunity,” says Physics Assoc. Prof. and MASTS co-investigator Tim Cook. “Hopefully, it will be a driver for the space industry by providing the necessary infrastructure and services to grow, especially for smaller space tech companies in the Northeast and beyond.”
Aside from Chakrabarti and Cook, Jason Martel, LoCSST’s lead mechanical engineer, is also a member of the MASTS team for UMass Lowell. He worked on the engineering aspect of the PICTURE-C mission and, now, will lead the establishment of testing facilities for MASTS.
A Multibillion-Dollar Industry
The world’s small satellite market is now a thriving multibillion-dollar industry, and the MASTS funding will support infrastructure investments at LoCSST to help develop key space technologies and support research opportunities for students. These technologies include the construction of design, fabrication, testing and validation facilities for nanosatellites and satellite constellations, as well as innovations in advanced imaging optics, sensors, materials, power, cooling and navigation systems, communications electronics and antennas, and other mission-critical subsystems.
Chakrabarti proposed a new nanosatellite format called Chickadee, which fits in an unused volume of the Nanoracks CubeSat launcher. It is named after the Massachusetts state bird, the black-capped chickadee. He hopes that it will inspire high school and college students to learn about orbital mechanics, space environment, communication and engineering by using this small satellite as a space-based laboratory.
“The students will put their experiment into a space the size of a candy box – be it a fluid physics lab experiment, a small digital camera to take pictures of the Earth or an experiment to watch plants grow or test biomaterials. There’s no limit to their imagination,” he says.
Driving Innovation and Workforce Development
According to Chakrabarti, providing the skills and support to the aerospace industry is key for it to flourish.
“For workforce development, it is critical to provide hands-on training they need to do the job,” he says. “Our idea is for workers from everywhere to come to campus and learn and use our facilities. Our faculty and students are available to help. This project will benefit not just the state of Massachusetts, but companies worldwide.”
The scientific discoveries and technologies realized through MASTS could potentially lead to the creation of new startup companies in related fields such as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs; marine robotics; and other smart, autonomous systems.
Chakrabarti says LoCSST is going to design a mission operations center that will include an advanced computing center for conducting simulations. “Before you can fly a real mission, we need to run simulations of the space environment and launch conditions,” he notes.
The facilities will also include an anechoic chamber for simulating satellite communications from Earth orbit, as well as a facility for simulating the vibrations and stresses of launch and testing the satellite’s response to extreme temperatures, the vacuum of space and the changing magnetic field as it orbits the Earth.
“We will use the funds to procure the testing equipment and bring in students to teach them how to run these tests themselves,” says Martel.
LoCSST already has a clean room facility for assembling satellites. It also has access to the UML Nuclear Research Reactor for testing materials, electronics and other hardware to make sure they are “space-hardened” – that is, they can survive the ionizing radiation from powerful geomagnetic storms caused by eruptions from the sun.
“Our faculty and graduate students will have the expertise and experience to match the needs of academia, industry and startups, from physicists to perform theoretical modeling of solar plasma to electrical engineers to do flexible electronics and mechanical and plastics engineers to do additive manufacturing – that is, building satellites from 3D-printed structures. UMass Lowell truly will become a one-stop shop for satellite building,” Chakrabarti says.
All of this comes as the university is expanding its academic offerings related to space.