STEPHENVILLE — A team from Tarleton State University’s Mayfield College of Engineering will participate in NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) with the opportunity to fly an experiment into space.
NASA, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Space Force partnered to select eight schools for the University Nanosatellite Program (UNP). Running May-August, the program will give students systems engineering training, preparing them to work in the space industry, while enhancing small satellite expertise among faculty at U.S. universities.
Tarleton, the only Texas university chosen, was one of 21 schools that applied for this year’s UNP Mission Concepts-1 Summer Series. NASA, Air Force and contractor personnel reviewed the proposals.
After spending a month in New Mexico and a weekend in NASA Kennedy Space Center, students in the program will return to their universities the following month for workshops and exercises. Experts on small satellites will offer feedback on improving proposals and increasing those teams’ potential of being chosen to fly a real world mission. CSLI and UNP will make their selections for future flights in 2024.
Final presentations will take place in Albuquerque late in the summer. The Tarleton team plans to attend the Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah early in the fall
The program covers travel expenses, enabling faculty and students to formulate teams without straining university resources. Invited universities must propose a mission that can be flown in a satellite as small as 10 cm (3.9 inches) by 10 cm housing an experiment inside the cube frame, electronics for the experiment and a navigation system.
“This grant reflects the importance for the Department of Defense to educate the next generation of small satellite systems engineers,” said Dr. Rafael Landaeta, Dean of Tarleton’s Mayfield College of Engineering. “They are seeking to develop engineers that understand the whole process of defining a mission and running a mission successfully.”
NASA also wants each participating team to propose an experiment related to a specific problem. “We’re are not looking to immediately solve the problem, but to provide a pathway to understand the problem better or to get closer to a solution,” Dr. Landaeta said.
Tarleton’s team proposes an experiment centered on space debris. With software used in small satellites, cameras look at the stars to instruct the navigation system to move. Problem is, the reflection from space debris appears as stars to the cameras.
“Problems get worse when two spacecraft detach from one another,” Dr. Landaeta said. “It creates a push of gases, and the amount of debris is problematic for the navigation system.”
The Tarleton team proposes a cube satellite with three cameras using artificial intelligence to recognize space debris and learn the difference between debris and stars. A second objective is to catalog debris near the cube sat, adding to the accuracy of information provided to NASA.
The two objectives are just part of the criteria for acceptance to actually fly a mission.
“No. 1 is how this project will help us achieve educational objectives,” Dr. Landaeta said. “We plan to use this as a way to educate our engineering students as a capstone senior-designed project. Our students have been and will continue to be heavily involved in the satellite design.”
Additionally, the project should lead to new academic programs — minors in aerospace and systems engineering — and has an outreach component. Two Tarrant County College students are expected to be part of the Tarleton’s team.
“Between the time this project is awarded and we design the mission and actually build it and fly it is two to three years, meaning our current seniors will have graduated. We need some level of continuity. So if we include sophomores from Tarrant County College, they will be seniors by the time we fly the mission. That’s why the relationship with TCC is critical.”
The program has already benefited an estimated 5,000 students nationwide.
“TCC is honored to partner with Tarleton State University and join the University Nanosatellite Program,” said TCC Chancellor Elva LeBlanc. “This partnership will provide opportunities for our students to learn essential engineering principles through hands-on development of spacecraft hardware as well as participation in competitions.
“The experience, no doubt, will prove invaluable as TCC students advance their education after completing their associate degree by transferring to Tarleton to pursue a degree in Engineering or another STEM field”.
Giving Tarleton a leg up in the competition is the fact that two members have ties to NASA — an adjunct professor who retired from NASA and spent more than two decades with small satellites, and an external advisor, currently an engineer at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Dr. Michael Weeks in the Department of Mechanical, Civil and Environmental Engineering worked in aerospace for three decades, including eight years at the space center, where he was the On-orbit Guidance and Targeting Subsystem Manager for the Orion program until he retired in 2014.
Kimberly Wright is an engineer at the space center certified as a flight controller and instructor for the International Space Station. She studied mechanical engineering at Old Dominion University, earning a bachelor of science and a master of engineering. She has experience leading a team through the design, construction, testing and delivery of a cube sat.
“There are many critical aspects in a project of this magnitude, so there’s a lot of work to do,” Dr. Landaeta said. “But it’s an exciting time.”
CSLI is one of several ways NASA is attracting students to STEM disciplines. This strengthens NASA’s and the nation’s future workforce. Further, the initiative develops innovative technology partnerships among NASA, U.S. industry and other sectors for the benefit of agency programs and projects.
For more information about NASA’s CSLI, visit:
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