All systems are go for BisonSat, the first cubesat for Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana. NASA EDGE visits the campus on the Flathead Reservation to learn how Dr. Tim Olson (BisonSat Principal Investigator) and the student team designed and developed Salish Kootenai College’s first cubesat. Also, find out how they are preparing for data acquisition after launch and deployment.
BLAIR: [in other language] “Good morning!”
CHRIS: We’re here at the Salish Kootenai College, located on the Flathead Indian Reservation, which is part of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Pablo, Montana.
BLAIR: And we’re going to be talking to Ted Olson and his students about [in other language] “BisonSat”.
CHRIS: Or, BisonSat.
BLAIR: Which is one of four CubeSats flying on ELaNa-12, and you had a chance to sit down with Tim and talk more about BisonSat.
CHRIS: Yeah, let’s check it out.
TIM: BisonSat is our CubeSat project that we’ve been working on for about the last four years. It’s a small satellite that our students and faculty designed and built, tested and have gotten ready for flight. The flight’s coming up shortly, here in September.
CHRIS: And what do you hope to achieve with the satellite?
TIM: Well, our mission is really primarily educational. The idea has been to give students an opportunity to work hands on in designing it, building it, the process all the way through from the conceptual stage at the beginning, all the way into flight operations.
CHRIS: You know Tim, we’ve covered a lot of colleges over the last several years, but this is our first tribal college. Can you share some of those experiences?
TIM: So there’s about 3 dozen colleges around the country that are classified as tribal colleges, and what that means is the student body is primarily Native American students. So in our case here at Salish Kootenai College, it’s the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead Reservation here that chartered the college back in the 1970’s. The idea was to provide local opportunities here for higher education on the reservation, that students wouldn’t necessarily have to go off away from their families and their home to get their college education.
CHRIS: So how’d you even get into the CubeSat business?
TIM: Well I do have a bit of a space research background, and was looking for an opportunity to get students involved as much as possible. And we’ve tried a couple of other flight missions that we’ve had students involved with, preceding the CubeSat project that worked well. We did a high altitude student platform launch; the HASP program. That NASA’s Balloon Office Program that’s run through Louisiana State University, and another project is the Mars Science Lab Rover Mission: Curiousity; that I’m a science CO-I on 3 of the science cameras, and I’ve had students that have helped me with science analysis and camera operations, so we generally like to get hands-on opportunities for students to really do science, really do engineering, while they’re an undergraduate student.
CHRIS: It’s sounds like from your previous NASA missions, that you’re a camera expert.
TIM: Well, that’s been the focus for BisonSat for our science payload. We had developed a camera system that we flew as a prototype on the High Altitude Balloon Launch, and we’ve adapted that for the CubeSat footprint to be able to fit inside the small CubeSat, and it basically consists of a digital camera, detector chip; very similar to what you have in cell phones and other types of consumer cameras. We use that computer chip, designed our own circuit board here to mount that on, learned how to interface with that detector chip to command it to take the pictures the way we want it to take the pictures and get the data off.
CHRIS: What’s it mean to SKC? It’s going to be the first tribal college to launch a CubeSat into space, which is pretty historic.
TIM: Yeah, I think I’ve been a little surprised how much impact it really has had. I mean, I knew it would have a big impact on the students that were involved, but just the campus community, the Flathead Reservation community, I mean this has been a big story in our area, and people here are really proud of what the students have accomplished and what the college has accomplished, and I think we’re going to have a big party on the day of the launch and celebrate what the BisonSat team has accomplished.
CHRIS: Well, I think you guys are doing a great job because if you look at some of these universities that have thirty, forty, fifty thousand students, and you have about eight hundred fifty or so?
TIM: The last several years, we’ve been in the range of about 800-900 students is about where we’ve been, yeah.
CHRIS: I mean, when you look at the level playing field, it’s not really level because a lot of these big schools have a lot of resources.
TIM: That’s true, but being a small college, for our students, and I often have this conversation with our engineering students in particular; there’s certainly advantages of getting an engineering education at a large university, but what we can offer being a small college, is they certainly get the one-on-one attention here and we have very small classes and students will not fall through the cracks here. And being small, we can get them involved in these hands-on design projects that are logistically harder for larger universities to offer.
CHRIS: And you can’t trade off that one-on-one experience with the mentor or professor, or getting 5-6 students who are working together as a close group like that. I mean it’s invaluable.
TIM: Yeah. I agree 100%.
CHRIS: Well Tim, good luck with BisonSat. We look forward to hearing the first signals back, and looking at some of the first pictures that are delivered.
TIM: Alright, thank you.
BLAIR: Chris, that was a great interview with Tim, but I have to be honest with you. I did not realize that SKC is going to be the first tribal college to launch a CubeSat.
CHRIS: Yeah, it’s pretty cool, isn’t it?
BLAIR: Very impressive.
CHRIS: You had a chance to sit down with three of the student team members to learn more about the project.
BLAIR: A very impressive bunch of kids.
BLAIR: So, Ryan, I understand that one of the first responsibilities you had when you started working on BisonSat, was developing solar panels. Tell me a little bit about that experience.
RYAN: Well, the job was to create solar panels for the CubeSat, and we decided to go with two inhouse made panels and four Clyde Space panels, which were commercially available at the time. What we did was, we used TAS cells, which are Triangular Advanced Solar cells, which are very small and triangular. The design was to pack as many as we could onto the panels; that was the first goal. The second goal was to have the highest power output, and in the end it was actually very comparable to the commercially available ones in terms of power output per area, so we were very proud of that.
BLAIR: The solar panels that you designed are on the satellite now, all ready to be launched.
RYAN: And being able to design the panels, I was able to add my own little personal touch to it. On the top panel, I decided to put the names of all the team members; staff and students, both current and past, so we’ll all have our names in space.
BLAIR: Now did the Professor Olson know about this?
BLAIR: And it was approved?
RYAN: It was approved.
RYAN: It had to go through quite a few different chains of command but it was approved.
BLAIR: Noel, I know that you worked primarily with the science behind BisonSat, but I also know that you worked with the lens mount, I think. Is that correct?
NOEL: Correct, yeah.
BLAIR: Tell me about what you were doing with the lens mount, and why would they let a scientist work on something as vital as the lens mount?
NOEL: So, they wanted a science student to be engaged in the development of the payload system itself. Tim Olson, my mentor, had always told me that if you are not familiar with the capabilities of your instrument, or how your instrument is built, then you wouldn’t be able to utilize it for your scientific research. So we were actually designing our own lens mount for the camera lens, and so that took a lot of mathematics and engineering.
BLAIR: It seems like this would be pretty standard, but you’re putting it on a space craft, so there has to be some unique challenges for that.
NOEL: The most interesting thing is, when you put the lens mount on the CubeSat, you actually have to have specific types of screws that were only available 120 miles away at one point because we didn’t have extras. We went through 3 different lens mounts because we had switched the lens size from 25 mm to 35 back to 25 and vice versa. We actually settled on a 35 mm lens, which then we had to build a lens mount for that.
BLAIR: Was that a science decision or was it a design decision?
NOEL: It was both. So I had to compromise at one point with the 25 and then they went with the 35. So for the science end of things, that gives me a much larger part of view.
BLAIR: Yeah, that’s good for you! So you won that battle.
NOEL: At some point in time, yeah.
BLAIR: Zach, you’ve spent a long time working on BisonSat, and I understand that during this time, you worked on a lot of different jobs. Tell me about the different things you did.
ZACH: When I first started out, it was a lot of research and understanding what a CubeSat was and exactly what came along with the thing that we were trying to create here. Most of the planning of what it was going to be was done by the senior graduates before me, but when I hopped on, I just kind of dove in and went where they needed me. I worked on the moment of inertia calculations with other students, and worked on solar cells and thermal testing in the back. So I just kind of jumped around and did what I could where I could.
BLAIR: You kind of became a Zach-of-all-Trades.
BLAIR: Awesome. Tell me a little bit about this moment of inertia calculation you did. What is that about?
ZACH: The particular way we did it is, we had the Cube satellite sit on a disk and we put the, what we believed, would be the center axis of mass along just the center of the plate, and we spun the plate and let the plate swing, and if there were any wobbles or just basically the plate moving rather than just spinning, we knew that there was an incongruency in the weight distribution amongst this Cube satellite, which is pretty important because they told us that if we didn’t have it right, it could destroy other Cube satellites inside of the P-POD launcher.
BLAIR: Well, that’s a great point because that’s one of those instances where you’re meeting the requirements of the launch services provider for the good of the whole mission, so what was that experience like?
ZACH: It was intense on the learning. Before, when I first started, it was kind of like you didn’t know where the knowledge cap ended. You were just like, “Alright, what do I got to learn next, what do I got to learn next?” and so, getting at the end of it, you’re able to put the lid on the box, and so you’re like “Oh, now I understand this subject.”.
CHRIS: You know Blair; I’m so excited for the SKC students and Dr. Tim Olson. They’re going to be launching their first CubeSat into space.
BLAIR: And I’m really excited to see them become part of this growing, thriving CubeSat community.
CHRIS: Don’t forget; BisonSat is one of four CubeSats that’s part of the ELaNa-12 mission.
BLAIR: The National Reconnaissance Office was very gracious to provide flights for these CubeSats. We’re talking Fox-1, ARC-1, LMRST Sat, and of course, BisonSat.
CHRIS: And if you want to learn more about the ELaNa-12 mission, visit nasa.gov.
BLAIR: You’re watching NASA EDGE.
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