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ASU students assist in launching nanosatellite into space

February 17, 2015

NASA has selected 14 small satellites from 12 states to fly as auxiliary payloads aboard rockets planned to launch in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The proposed "CubeSats" come from universities across the country, nonprofit organizations and NASA field centers.

Arizona State University was one of the institutions selected for sponsoring a satellite.

The selections are part of the sixth round of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative. CubeSats are a class of research spacecraft called nanosatellites. The cube-shaped satellites vary in size from large coffee mugs to shoeboxes. The selected satellites are eligible for placement on a launch manifest after final negotiations, depending on the availability of a flight opportunity. The ASU satellite is expected to be flight ready by May 2016.

The ASU project is called the Asteroid Origins Satellite, or AOSAT I. It is a science laboratory that will be the world’s first CubeSat microgravity laboratory. It will enable a unique set of science and technology experiments to answer fundamental questions of how the solar system formed and to understand the surface dynamics of asteroids and comets. Once launched, it will be in space for at least eight months, if not longer, depending on the orbit.

“There is great and growing interest in exploring the native environment of asteroids,” said ASU professor Erik Asphaug. “Instead of a billion-dollar mission taking a decade to develop, we have decided to build a low cost ‘patch of asteroid’ in orbit, not as a substitute for an asteroid mission but as a testbed for validating – reducing the cost and risk – of mission concepts related to asteroid deflection, sample return and resource utilization.”

About the same size as a loaf of bread, AOSAT I was designed by a collaborative team centered in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE), headed by science principal investigator Asphaug and engineering principal investigator Jekan Thanga, a roboticist and an assistant professor. The team also includes researchers from partner institutions, including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), University of Maryland and University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

The ASU team’s roster boasts student talent as well. Jack Lightholder (computer science major) serves as the project engineer, and Viranga Perera (SESE doctoral student) is the project scientist. Between 2014 and 2017, a total of 32 undergraduates will be involved, along with 15 master’s students, three doctoral students and two postdocs. The students work as part of SpaceTREx (Space and Terrestrial Robotic Exploration Laboratory) and the Planetary Formation Lab, headed by Thanga and Asphaug, respectively.

“Talented students under direct supervision of faculty members work on many of the critical subsystems for AOSAT I. They are an integral part of the team. Many are multi-talented individuals, who I would have trouble distinguishing from professionals,” said Thanga.

The program is providing students and young professionals with the opportunity to participate from start to finish like never before in satellite missions. AOSAT I seeks to combine science and engineering to produce a whole line of CubeSat science laboratories in space. The potential applications spread beyond planetary sciences into life sciences and long duration human survival in space. According to Thanga, the hope is to spin off these capabilities into future partnerships with the student-led Sun Devil Satellite Laboratory and Dust Devils.

“One of the great things about AOSAT is that its life cycle is comparable to the tour-of-duty of a student at ASU. This makes it a highly tangible experience, where a student can design an experiment and fly it in space, and collect and analyze the data, all as part of a thesis project. This is way outside the box of standard missions, and will set the pace for student-led missions to come,” said Asphaug.

AOSAT I will be assembled in the Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV (ISTB 4) clean room, which provides state-of-the-art facilities for the design, construction, assembly and testing of small spacecraft. In parallel, the NewSpace Initiative, headed by professor Jim Bell, is coordinating efforts to rebuild ASU’s satellite ground station. A mission control center for AOSAT I and future ASU-led CubeSat missions will be housed on the ground floor of ISTB 4. This will enable ASU to join an elite club consisting of a handful of government institutions, private entities and universities in having complete control of the space mission in-house.