NASA EDGE and special guest host Tiffany Nail explore the latest developments in nanosat technology at the 10th Annual CubeSat Development Workshop. MagnetoStar-1, however, still won’t fly.
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ANNOUNCER: CubeSats, the next generation of small satellite technology designed by engineering students and industry partners from all around the world. Will these nanosatellites change the future of space research? Does Blair have the right stuff to get his CubeSat off the ground? Find out next on NASA EDGE.
FRANKLIN: Welcome to NASA EDGE.
BLAIR: We’re here at the 10th Annual CubeSat Development Workshop in San Luis Obispo.
FRANKLIN: On the beautiful campus of Cal Poly and we are joined by industry insider and friend of the show, Tiffany Nail.
TIFFANY: Thank you. It’s great to be here, Franklin.
BLAIR: It really is great to have you. And the good news is she’s just completed my 10-week course on how to host a show. So, I think you’re ready.
TIFFANY: All right. Can I start over? I have a little anxiety but I’m up for a challenge. I say, “let’s do this.”
BLAIR: I tell you while you get in the zone, Franklin and I had an opportunity to talk to two of the founding fathers, if you will, of the CubeSat Workshop world. Let’s take a look.
BLAIR: As I understand, you’ve been involved with CubeSat since the beginning with Dr. P.
ROBERT: Yes. In 1995, I got an opportunity to go to Stanford University to start a small satellite program. My goal, at that point, was to build a satellite within at least two years because most of the students that worked with me at Stanford were Master Degree students. Some of them stayed about two years to get their Masters Degree. Come three years, we still didn’t have it built and we’d actually started a second generation of that satellite. It took me until almost 2000 to get the first one launched. It was an interesting satellite in that we had collaborated with the Aerospace Corporation. They had this idea for what they called picosatellites. They wanted to launch them and see if they’d work. We built some launchers in them that would hold these picosatellites. The picosatellites shape at that time was like a Klondike Ice Cream bar. Okay?
ROBERT: We built this thing. We got it up and actually got these little satellites launched.
BLAIR: You mean to tell me the original, before the peapod, you actually launched small satellites from a satellite?
ROBERT: That’s right. Yes. It was a mother satellite with, we called them daughters that were in it.
BLAIR: That’s awesome.
ROBERT: That was how it was launched. We developed this launcher to do that. Well, I got to thinking about this and one of my problems was I couldn’t get the students to build a satellite fast enough because I wanted them to go through the whole process. I wanted them to say we want a satellite to do this. This is what we have to do. These are the trade studies we’ve got. This is our base design. Let’s design it. My objective was to get through that in a one-year period.
ROBERT: Of course, that didn’t work. The more room you’ve got the more stuff that they put in them. I got to thinking about that. You know, maybe if I make this thing small enough, they can’t keep putting more things in it. Let’s restrict the size. I knew that in order to get them launched, the smaller you can make them the better off you would be. So, I started looking around for something that was small but I knew we had to have a cube because we were not stabilizing these things and I needed to put solar cells on all 6 sides. At a plastic shop, I found a 4-inch Beanie baby box. Okay? I took that.
BLAIR: This is a story of CubeSat we haven’t heard before. Not many people have been talking about the Beanie Baby origins of CubeSat.
ROBERT: That’s right. That’s the way it started. It wasn’t this magnificent calculation or anything that we did. It was a matter of size and components and convenience.
BLAIR: It’s just interesting to me that all this development took place sort of on the fly.
BLAIR: You were kind of developing as you went. Good grief. We’re now ten years into the Workshop program and it’s almost it’s own industry.
BLAIR: How does that feel from your standpoint, knowing that this was born out of all that work that you did.
ROBERT: Dumbfounded. [Laughing] No idea that it would ever be like this.
BLAIR: What do you think of the CubeSat industry as it stands now?
ROBERT: If you look at the rate of innovation. We kind of predicted this at the beginning. We thought because of the students coming in, and the students are so innovative at this age. And they don’t have all of the restrictions you get. You know, you got out of school and you went to work for somebody. You say, “I’ve got this bright idea.” And this older engineer says, “Ah, I did that 10 years ago or 15 years ago and it didn’t work.” But, you know, the materials have changed. Technology has changed. You know, you cower down some and think, okay, well, I won’t try that. What we try to teach our students is look, when somebody says that to you, we want you to jump up on the desk and say [beep] things have changed now, sir.
ROBERT: Be forceful because you have had in these programs some tremendous experience. We had our students go out and they would immediately make them system engineers because of their broad background. It would scare the bejeebers out of them but in reality it took 20 or 25 years for somebody to become a system engineer because you always started out as a specialist. You see there is something about building something that goes into space that sparks each student. There is in this big cloud for a little while and all of the student they break out of this cloud. The self-confidence, the enthusiasm just builds. You’d better get out of the way because they’re going to run right over the top of you.
BLAIR: Professor Twiggs is absolutely correct about how students really push the development of the technology. Let’s check in with our special guest host, Tiffany, and see if she’s ready to push the development of her interview skills as she and Franklin talk to the students here at the workshop.
TIFFANY: Hey there. I’m here with Travis. How’s it going?
TRAVIS: Pretty good. And yourself?
TIFFANY: I’m doing good. Tell me. You’re here connected to a CubeSat. What is your CubeSat name? And also, what do you hope to accomplish with this CubeSat?
TRAVIS: We’re from the University of Louisiana and our Cube Sat is called Cape 2. We have previously launched Cape 1 in 2007. CAPE stands for Cajun Advanced Picosatellite Experiment. One of our main missions for this next satellite launch is an educational mission. We’re trying to get kids more involved. One of the technologies on our satellites is a parrot repeater. When a satellite is overhead specific areas, kids can chime in and type something and it will send back an actual voice of what they typed in. [computer voice] Also, they’re able to get information from the satellite like temperatures and other things like that. It’s very important to get kids involved early because we need to fill the pipeline. Right?
TIFFANY: First of all, tell me about PhoneSat.
STUDENT: PhoneSat is technology demonstration. How cheaply can you actually build a satellite? One of the great things about the phone is that it has so much in it. There are 6 billion people around the world paying for its development, so it’s really cheap. You have this phone that has an extraordinarily fast processor. It’s got sensors. It’s got magnetometers, gyros and a camera and they’re built to withstand people throwing them against the wall. So, they can survive the launch environment.
TIFFANY: Basically, what we’re talking about, PhoneSat, is, yes, this is exactly what this is, basically a phone you guys bought off the shelf. You put it into a Cube and then you put it on a rocket. And just recently, I believe, it launched. What day was that?
STUDENT: It was two days ago, Sunday, actually. We launched from an Antares. Actually, it is flying around our head right now.
TIFFANY: Oh, excellent. So, we’re going to hear from PhoneSat soon, is what you’re saying?
STUDENT: Yeah, exactly. In a few minutes, it should pass behind the mountains, so hopefully we should hear from it.
[beeping & static]
TIFFANY: Have you ever shared with other teams that have a CubeSat? Do you guys share or is it a competition? Tell me. What’s the inside scoop?
STUDENT: Surprisingly, it’s very collaborative. CubeSats that are similar to each other, they’re eager to help you. They talk about I used this camera, this board, that board. This is how I laid my solar cells. It’s really a great community. We’re all trying to get launched. We’re really excited to help each other out.
FRANKLIN: We’ve talked to a number of students here who are working on their first CubeSat. You’ve actually had CubeSat success with the students at Montana State. Tell us a little bit about the significance of your launch.
TEACHER: In 2011, we launched a CubeSat called Explorer I Prime. This Cube Sat was a reflight of the first satellite ever launched by the United States, Explorer 1. It was a Geiger tube that actually discovered the Van Allen radiation belt. What we did was we took that technology and we packaged it up into a CubeSat and launched, basically, the same experiment. It gives you a showcase where technology has come since 1958 when we launched the first satellite of the U.S.
TIFFANY: How many times have you been here and what do you expect to get out of this year?
STUDENT: This is the fifth year I’ve been here. It’s really nice because the CubeSat community is fairly small and tight. It’s the fifth year I have been here. I know a lot of people. We can talk about what they’re working on. You can see where other people are going, where the technology is being pushed. One of the cool things, our first satellite was on ELaNa, which was the first nanosat launch. We were talking about single launches. And it’s grown so much that there’s dozens of individual CubeSats going out, which is really cool to see in that short amount of time.
FRANKLIN: What kind of enjoyment or sense of fulfillment do your students get when they’re working on their CubeSats?
TEACHER: You see students that are really engaged by applying what they learned in the classroom in our laboratories. We’re not reteaching them what they learned in class. They’re actually using what they learned in class and applying it to actually build something real. When that satellite is launched, that enjoyment is compounded because now you’ve got something you can hear and talk to in space. You can actually see your measurements at work and when the data comes back the students are really excited because they get a huge sense of fulfillment. It helps them along in their career and have the self confidence to know they can do a great number of things using just the knowledge that they have.
BLAIR: Tiffany also had a chance to talk with John Garvey about the development of his exclusive nanosatellite launch vehicle.
TIFFANY: Explain to me Garvey Spacecraft Corporation. How did this come about? What inspired you to come up with the corporation?
JOHN: I was working for a big aerospace company, working on big rockets and decided it would be easier, more fun, or more efficient or whatever the right words are to try and do those on my own. Initially, we started building test vehicles for technology demonstration. Around 2003, we realized this market for CubeSats really needed a dedicated launch capability if it was going to reach its full potential. Our long-term goal is to develop a dedicated, responsive, low-cost nanosat launcher because right now the primary option for getting to orbit is still a secondary payload on a much larger vehicle. It’s a good way to start but there are a number of limitations for many users particularly commercial or operational users. You don’t control your schedule. You have to live with the constraints of the primary payload user. It’s all very rational but if you have your own vehicle then you control your destiny more. We’ve been trying to work on these programs to quantify the cost, get the processes down so that when we do get to the operational missions, we’ve already pathfinded a lot of those. Hopefully, reduced the risks on the administrative and programming side as well as the technical. And along the way we have a lot of students involved. We were able to continue bringing in that next generation. One thing that is key in all of this is when we’re working with students, you always have to be recruiting for that next group. What we have found is field testing, when you go out into the desert. We fly at a non-profit owned site that’s outside the town of Mojave. That’s a good filter because the students go out there and some determine they don’t like the field. They’d rather be in a lab or behind a desk crunching numbers, which is totally fine. There’s people who find out they love it. They love going out and working with the hardware, getting their hands dirty. Those are the people were looking for and we try to then recruit them and teach them the right way to work. Again, if they continue to show promise, then we try to bring them into the team.
BLAIR: Now college and high school students are getting even more involved in nanosatellites and launch vehicles. The workshop has come a long way since 2003. Franklin talks with Dr. P about how it’s developed.
FRANKLIN: Jordi, this is the 10th year of the CubeSat workshop and the 10th year since the first launch of a CubeSat. How has the program evolved so far?
DR. PUIG-SUARI: Oh, gosh. The first workshop was a really small event. We just wanted to bring the few people that were working on CubeSats together. Our first launch was coming up in Russia. It was a very small affair, and very informal. It was just kind of a get together. We tried to figure out how to move forward. Now, we have hundreds of people here from government industry, universities, students, technical people, program managers. We have almost anybody and it’s a much bigger event. It also is very different in the tone. Initially, it was all an exploratory event where we’re trying to figure out what are we going to do. Now, there’s people telling us what they’re doing already. And also, we’re talking about what we’re doing with more certainty, doing things that are going to be important. We have missions coming up. We have projects that we’re proposing to NASA, DOD, NSF. But it’s also maintained that small community atmosphere. Everybody is interested in the same thing. And we have a really strong educational presence, lots of students, lots of academia, teachers learning about CubeSats. Many of them are starting their own program right now. They’re here to learn how to move forward. Hopefully, being here helps them speed up that process.
FRANKLIN: To date, how many successful CubeSat missions have flown?
DR. PUIG-SUARI: There is probably around a hundred CubeSats that have launched. The number of missions is probably getting to the dozens because they’re launching in the U.S. but there’s also launches happening other places. It’s getting to the point where almost every launch has the option of carrying CubeSats if they have the space. Of course, we’re launching from the Space Station with NASA’s support. That’s another interesting change in that now we’re even launching from orbit. It’s everywhere. The numbers are hard to keep up with anymore because it’s just happening all the time.
FRANKLIN: I guess that’s a good thing.
DR. PUIG-SUARI: It is. It is a good thing.
FRANKLIN: Ten years down, what do you see for the next five to ten years of CubeSat?
DR. PUIG-SUARI: It’s actually very interesting because if you had asked me that question ten years ago, I would have failed miserably at predicting what has happened. Nobody expected we would be where we are. So, I am reluctant to say what is going to happen in ten years because I’ll probably miss. You’ll show me the video later and say you were wrong. I think the fact that we’re doing missions is the biggest change. I think there are things like six chute deployers and bigger satellites that are using the same CubeSat model, as far as the components, they’re using the standardization. I see those two things as the key. There are going to be more missions, and that’s already the case but it’s going to continue. We’ll probably go to constellations pretty soon where large numbers of satellites will work together. Then, we’ll use the lessons learned from CubeSat in bigger platforms that will provide a faster development in time, lower cost, more performance. Then, there will be a bunch of things that I have no idea will happen that will surprise all of us. But, that’s the beauty of the future.
BLAIR: CubeSat technology and the workshop are a huge success. We were able to talk to Jason Crusan from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center about how both students and NASA gain by developing nanoSat missions.
JASON: Several years ago, I started our CubeSat launch initiative mainly as a recognition that there are a lot of students out there building CubeSats that didn’t have a way to get to orbit. Really, where our big push is lately is how to we utilize CubeSat to actually do technology development, risk reduction on various communication systems, networking protocols, understanding biology in a cost effective way.
BLAIR: Have you gotten any results? Has there been any actual feedback from a CubeSat mission?
JASON: Yeah, what’s interesting is some of these CubeSats were just technology demonstrations at the beginning are actually getting real science data as well. Some of the ones that the National Science Foundation has funded and that we’ve actually flown to space have now actually had peer-reviewed science being published on their outcomes, which is a secondary benefit of it. You’re seeing next generation communication systems starting to be developed in a lot of these CubeSats. I think we’re right at the cusp of seeing large-scale usage of CubeSats even by the commercial industry. We’ve always kind of wondered where the plateau for how many CubeSats could be built by the community that’s out there. And we always say, this is the year that we kind of plateau out and we won’t get that many more proposals for launch but that plateau still hasn’t hit yet. You have this general increase of utilization of low-Earth orbit and the more common orbits that we get. With that experience though, they’re building higher and higher reliability spacecraft. A lot of student groups will start out with what I refer to as a “beeperSat.” It’s a little, simple satellite. It gives off a small comm signal. They can track it but it actually doesn’t have many functions beyond the building of it.
BLAIR: You just get a sense of accomplishment.
JASON: You get a sense of accomplishment for that. They quickly move on from that to real technology and science based CubeSats. You’re seeing them advance very quickly in one or two build cycles. I see them going and utilizing low-Earth orbit even more. But then, where do we go after that? Once we get the reliability, get these more complex communication systems, can we go somewhere else with them. When we go to an asteroid or when we go to Mars, can we take CubeSats with us? Can you imagine that we’re up getting ready to dock with an asteroid and the crew vehicle is coming up and we pop off a CubeSat. Then the CubeSat is the camera angle. It is the wide angle lens of seeing a crewed mission coming to Mars, into orbit or a crewed mission going to an asteroid for the first time and seeing that God’s eye camera view. To me, there’s a lot of robotic precursor missons. There’s a lot of knowledge that we need to know about the environment that we’re going to before we step the crew in there. The lowest cost way to do that may be through smaller satellites to actually do those measurements. I see it synergistically. So, if you advance a comm system in a CubeSat, that comm system could be the comm system that’s part of your EVA suit. It’s the same kind of form fit. You need low power, low mass, high reliability. Can you put it inside a suit? Can you put it inside a telerobotics platform? When you boil things down to lower level components, they’re actually all the same. So avionics on a CubeSat could be avionics on your robotic lander. What if we’re on the planetary surface and we have a whole sensor web sitting around the surface. Will all those sensors talk to each other and communicate back through? You can think of it as a swarm of CubeSats. They just have happen to be on the surface. Through advancing CubeSats, are we actually advancing our next generation satellite networks and sensor networks that we’ll even use on surface? Systems, it’s pretty exciting.
BLAIR: Speaking of advanced technology, a few months ago I pitched my nanoSat concept, MagnetoStar 1 to Garrett Skrobot and his colleagues at NASA. After making a few tweeks, it’s time to test the collaborative nature of the workshop and see if I can get some constructive feedback for my uniquely designed CubeSat.
NICK: So, this is a CubeSat?
STUDENT: Are there electronics in here?
BLAIR: It’s proprietary.
STUDENT: Ah, yes.
BLAIR: I’m not allowed to talk about what’s inside the box there. That’s the brains.
STUDENT: The brains? Yeah, held together with duct tape.
BLAIR: Everybody is usually really fond of duct tape.
STUDENT: Uh hmm, I mean, yeah, Apollo 13 fixed their issues with duct tape. Why couldn’t this satellite?
BLAIR: What do you think of this way cool communications array. Is that impressive?
STUDENT: I wonder if it’ll actually deploy in space. It looks like you had to pull it open with your hands. You’re not going to be able to do that in orbit.
STUDENT: I don’t know. Have you weighed this?
STUDENT: Does it pass the mass budget?
BLAIR: No. I…
STUDENT: You see, power budgets, mass budgets. Are you…. what is this? Is it deployable? Is it going to stow during launch? You’ve got a lot of deployables here.
BLAIR: Nick, you have a lot of questions.
NICK: I have so many questions.
BLAIR: In your professional opinion because I really value what you say. What are my chances of seeing MagnetoStar 1 fly?
DR. PUIG-SUARI: Um, in space?
DR. PUIG-SUARI: Yes. Oh, um, have you seen the peapod and done a fit check?
BLAIR: I was going to check that acutally out soon.
DR. PUIG-SUARI: Yeah, I think my guys can help you maybe doing some fit checks. And see if we’re off a little bit or a little bit more.
BLAIR: Okay. Okay.
STUDENT: I’m still stuck on the fact that it’s made out of duct tape.
BLAIR: No, no, that’s not…. It looks like duct tape but it’s special space tape.
STUDENT: Oh right, it’s capped on tape.
BLAIR: What’s capped on tape?
STUDENT: Maybe you shouldn’t be building the satellite.
NICK: What about… does this out gas? You’ve got to worry about that.
BLAIR: Wow. I hadn’t thought about….
NICK: Have you even had a mission readiness review?
BLAIR: All right. We’re done here with the advice. Clearly, I’m going to have to enroll in Cal Poly and get some hardcore time in the lab.
NICK: That sounds right.
STUDENT: Even our prototypes start really simple. What we want to do is get something that’s simple and we can do quickly to test it so we don’t start chasing something. Even some of the prototypes that we’ve done on our satellites, we try to build something even if it’s not the most glamorous looking. We try to get it so quick so you can know if you’re going down the right trail.
BLAIR: I want to know if I’m reading you right. So, you’re suggesting that this is glamorous looking?
STUDENT: Well, uh, I’m saying it… it’s got a little work to go to sustain those launch environments which are pretty gnarly.
BLAIR: Can somebody help me shake test this? Okay, good.
BLAIR: Turn it off! Turn it off! Oh.
BLAIR: Well, into addition to learning an awful lot about CubeSats, I’ve got to say I really believe MagnetoStar 1 was very well received today.
FRANKLIN: You know who else was well received? Our special guest host, Tiffany Nail. Tiffany, you did an excellent job and we enjoyed having you on the show.
TIFFANY: Thank you, Franklin. Thank you, Blair. I appreciate it. I had a lot of fun.
BLAIR: It was great. I tell you what if we ever come down to a CubeSat launch, would you be willing to host the show again?
TIFFANY: I would be honored.
BLAIR: Awesome. I tell you what. In addition to getting Tiffany, we probably ought to get the entire CubeSat student body to come down and help because they were a tremendous help today. We wanted to give a special thanks to them. You’re watching NASA EDGE.
FRANKLIN: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.