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NMSU engineering students explore new technology for the ‘New Space Era’

  • By Linda Fresques
  • Nov 29, 2021
two men in lab coats

Engineering students at New Mexico State University are working with aerospace industry leader Northrop Grumman on projects that may someday solve issues for military and commercial satellite missions with CubeSats—miniature space vehicles that have big impact on our lives today and the promise of even more for the future.

This multi-disciplinary endeavor, started in fall 2019, is led by Steven Stochaj, interim department head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Hyeongjun Park, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. It came about through discussions with Christopher Long, NMSU engineering alumnus and former vice president of National Security Systems at Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems. Long also serves on the College of Engineering Executive Advisory Council.

Northrop Grumman made a grant to NMSU in fall 2019 for engineering students to work on satellite alignment system and space maneuvering. The two-year project was extended one year due to the pandemic and plans call to apply for renewal when the grant ends in spring 2022. The ultimate goal is to launch two CubeSats that can align and dock.

“They are looking for autonomous docking of satellites,” said Stochaj who is also NMSU’s NanoSat Lab director. “They have huge military satellites and when they run out of fuel, for example, they need to dock with another satellite to refuel. In theory, they do this while staying in orbit, but there is the tug of the sun, and the tug of the moon, and the Earth is not exactly round, so it is really difficult for the satellites to stay in position. Some of these satellites are car-sized. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

In addition to refueling, there are a lot of things that small satellites can do, such as on-orbit services, repair malfunctioning space craft or manufacturing in space. The space industry is using smaller and smaller devices. But Stochaj pointed out future opportunities in commercial and military applications from providing internet connectivity to operations.

CubeSats are small, built from aluminum units of standard dimensions approximately 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm (just shy of four-inches square) and typically weigh less than 3 pounds per unit. They can be constructed in combination up to 24 units. Because of their small size and weight, they are easier and less expensive to launch as a payload on a rocket.

The advantages afforded by these small space vehicles also face the biggest challenges – they cannot use large components or actuators or big thrusters. The onboard CPU is small and limited so they can’t function at the same level as much larger satellites.

Park, director of Robotics, Unmanned Vehicles, and Intelligent systems CONtrol Lab (RUVICON Lab), said the students are developing technologies for autonomous rendezvous using an optical alignment system for satellites.

They are using algorithms with two CubeSats – one being the target and the other the being imager. The target CubeSat will have five LEDs attached, one for each corner and one in the middle. The imager CubeSat, equipped with a high-quality camera, takes pictures of the target to find the its position with respect to the imager. Both CubeSats can align with each other.

“In addition to alignment, we are looking at docking,” said Stochaj. “One of our students had the idea to use electromagnets to draw the satellites together, which are smaller, lighter and gentler than robotic arms that have been used. Northrop Grumman liked this idea and expanded the scope of the projects.”

Once the project is ready, Stochaj and Park will apply to have the CubeSats grab a “rideshare” on a rocket launch. The NASA CubeSat program provides opportunities for small satellites to fly on rockets as auxiliary payloads on previously planned missions.

It won’t be the first time an NMSU engineering small satellite has been launched in space. The SmallSat program now led by Stochaj was started by former NMSU engineering professor Steve Horan in 2001. Horan’s Three-Corner Cube mission won the first Air Force Research Laboratory University NanoSat Competition, earning a launch opportunity from the Air Force.

Stochaj and Park joined forces in 2018, when Park was hired at NMSU, and have received SmallSat funding from NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

For the current Northrop Grumman project alone, Stochaj estimates there have been close to 75 students involved through their senior design projects (required for all engineering students) along with the Student Satellite group and a few computer science students.

“Mechanical and aerospace engineering students learn orbital mechanics and space craft dynamics and control so they know how to control spacecraft and how to design spacecraft, but there are a lot of sensors and electronic equipment that require the skills of electrical engineering students. Also, we need computer science and astronomers for science missions. This CubeSat project has a combination of students from engineering and science,” said Park.

During the kickoff meeting for the projects, the Northrop Grumman innovative technology team indicated they wanted to test some of their components in space using these CubeSats, Park explained. “For them, it’s a really good opportunity to test because students will develop those CubeSats and then if they provide some components that need near-space certification in space flight. it’s a great benefit for both sides.”

The relationship offers benefits and opportunities for the students with the company.

“They want to develop workforce for space engineering,” Park said. “They are in a way developing brand loyalty for students to work in their company. Having students understand the complexities of this industry makes them very valuable employees. It is really a big investment in student talent.”

Stochaj noted a couple of students have already been offered employment by the company.

“This is like an internship for these students while they are at school,” Stochaj said. “You just can’t say how important this is to students. It’s hard to identify student specialties initially, but this offers an opportunity for cross-training in a real-world experience. This kind of experience gives students that extra factor that will expand their opportunities in industry and academia.”

“Now is the New Space Era,” said Park. “With companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin and in Las Cruces Virgin Galactic, it’s a new era for aerospace engineering.