COURTESY UH SMALL SATELLITE PROGRAM
This undated photo was taken from a University of Hawaii BalloonSat instrument from 92,000 feet up -- more than twice the altitude of cruising jet liners. Since 2001, UH students have worked to put instruments in ever smaller packages for orbit or high-altitude weather surveys. Their latest effort has won a $300,000 grant from the Missile Defense Agency. CLICK FOR LARGE
Soda can-size satellites win rich niche at UH
TWO GENERATIONS of ultrasmall satellites developed by University of Hawaii students are sitting on the shelves waiting for launch.
And a new and improved model is in the works.
About $50,000 is what it takes to make a small satellite, called CubeSat, and it costs another $50,000 to $100,000 or more to launch it, said Wayne Shiroma, UH associate professor of electrical engineering.
"Usually, our federal contracts do not include launch fees," he said. "We're working on a solution to get them launched."
Mea Huaka'i (Voyager), the first CubeSat developed by UH electrical and engineering students, and 13 from other universities were on a Russian rocket that failed after liftoff on July 26.
Despite loss of the first UH microsatellite, Shiroma said the program has made great progress.
"Really, the CubeSat program is not so much about the technology that goes into satellites, but it's a rich breeding ground for training excellent students," Shiroma said.
About 150 undergraduate electrical and mechanical engineering students have gone through the program, and seven have gone on to graduate school, he said.
Leaders of the first- and second-generation CubeSats, about 4 by 4 by 8 inches, were national award-winning students: Aaron Ohta and Blaine Murakami. Ohta is in a University of California-Berkeley doctoral program, and Murakami is an engineer for a medical devices company in Irvine, Calif.
Byron Wolfe, in systems engineering with the Boeing Co. on Maui, worked on the original UH CubeSat. He graduated in 2003 but continued with Mea Huaka'i until it was completed.
It was a different kind of education, he said, "a real-world engineering project, much different than exams or small projects just for academic purposes."
Shiroma said he started the Small Satellite Program in November 2001. It was the idea of Jeff Taylor, then director of the Hawaii Space Grant Consortium in the School of Ocean & Earth Science & Technology. "He said, 'How would you like to make satellites the size of Coke cans?'"
Taylor funded a trip for Shiroma and three students to go to a University Space Systems Symposium in Kona, and that fueled the CubeSat Program, Shiroma said.
"Conventional satellites are very large," he said. "They could be the size of a house and cost millions and millions of dollars and take years and years to develop, and they are prone to single-point failures.
"We're trying to substitute the functionality of a large satellite with a network of a lot of small satellites."
They could be launched into space almost immediately for such things as crisis management and disaster mitigation, he said, "and they're not prone to single-point failure because you have a network of small satellites."
The UH students have made many advances in the satellites since the first one -- in the structure itself, in the way power is managed, how the onboard computer works and in communications between satellites, Shiroma said.
Justin Akagi, a first-year graduate student, is leading the fourth-generation CubeSat, funded by the Missile Defense Agency with $300,000. "That's pretty good for a 22-year-old to be in charge of a $300,000 program," Shiroma commented.
Akagi, who began working on the first CubeSat as a freshman, said he had some doubts about it at first but thought he would try it out one semester, and he is still at it.
Where the previous satellites were more individual, he said the UH group is now working on establishing a cluster of satellites with communications between them. "We're hoping to do it for hundreds of satellites."
Akagi said the current satellite includes more advanced communications technology.
Tyler Tamashiro, 19, entering his junior year at UH, headed the third phase of the CubeSat program last year. Shiroma recruited him for a College of Engineering summer intern program when he was a Mililani High School junior. He was awarded a UH regents' scholarship, and Shiroma got him involved in the Small Satellite Program.
Tamashiro worked on an internship project to make a BalloonSat, a weather balloon, using cardboard. Some UH students went to Colorado to launch it. It goes up to 100,000 feet, he said, "so you can take some nice pictures of the curvature of the earth."
He went to a workshop in Colorado last year and flew the BalloonSat. "It's pretty cool," he said. It had a geostationary positioning system, and students from a bunch of universities filled 16 vans and followed it like tornado chasers, he said.
Tamashiro said the nice thing about CubeSat is that Shiroma gets undergraduates involved in research they normally would not get to do. Being project leader last year was an unusual opportunity, and a great challenge, for a sophomore, he said.
"It's hands-on research, a little over a $100,000 project. It was an opportunity to get parts, get them working together, with deadlines to meet to test it.
"We monitored it from UH and wirelessly transmitted pictures (from Diamond Head) that would simulate it being up in space. Everything worked well."
The UH team's three previous small satellites each had a different purpose, Tamashiro said. The fourth one is incorporating all of the missions and adding stabilization with microthrusters, he said.
"The last one, we're trying to make so we can point it toward Earth and we can control it."