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Two students working on a mini satellite.

Jason Mintz, Minnesat team student project manager, and Jim Pogemiller, a senior majoring in physics, work on last-minute adjustments to the U's mini-satellite.

Mini marvel

U students work on mini satellite for national competition

By Michelle Haschka

From eNews, May 3, 2007

Ask any kid what they want to be when they grow up and astronaut is likely to make the list. Whether it's the appeal of exploring uncharted territory or the chance to bounce around sans gravity, space travel is mysteriously alluring. Ellie Field admits she wanted to be an astronaut since she was 4 years old. She remembers dreaming of the day when she would be old enough to whiz through the atmosphere on a mission to Mars or the moon. Fast-forward more than 15 years Field is a sophomore studying aerospace engineering at the University's Institute of Technology. While her dreams of interplanetary travel have yet to be realized, she is already working on a spacecraft and is a pioneering member of a project that could influence the future of satellite design. Field is part of a team of about 25 University of Minnesota undergraduate students who embarked on a mission nearly two years ago to enter the University Nanosatellite Program, a nationwide mini-satellite competition that culminated this spring. The University of Minnesota's Nanosat-4 team placed fifth out of 11 teams. Pretty good, considering it was the team's first appearance in the competition. Top honors went to CUSat at Cornell.

Building a brighter future for aerospace engineering

Started in 1999, and run by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Air Force Research Labs, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the University Nanosatellite Program challenges students to design and build a working satellite, from initial concept to final working vehicle stage. All entries must meet a specific research goal, measure no more than 18.5 inches high or wide, and weigh less than 30 kilograms (66 pounds). The winner gets a chance to see the fruits of their labor launched into space, with the $3 million launch tab picked up by the federal government. Approximately 2,500 college students and 25 institutions of higher learning have been involved in the competition since its inception. "Our primary goal is to attract students into the field of aerospace engineering and to give them experience working on real hardware," says Jeff Ganley, University Nanosat structural engineer at the Air Force Research Labs and University of Minnesota Institute of Technology alumnus. "This project is not about paper designs. These are real satellites and after working on the project, students are qualified to work in aerospace." The University of Minnesota's entry, named Minnesat, competed head-to-head with satellites from 10 other U.S. universities. According to the Air Force Research Labs, creating miniature spacecraft has many advantages, including inexpensive design, availability for mass production, reduced launch price, fuel economy, and low-risk cost.

Influencing the future of satellite design

While teams from other universities have the advantage of improving upon existing satellites, the Minnesat team built their model from scratch. In addition to learning the skills to build a satellite from the ground up, the team's experience is contributing to future University curriculum. (The U's proposal for the next competition, Nanosat-5, was recently accepted by the Air Force. The next round of competition will begin in January 2008.) "We are here to build an infrastructure in satellite design and space design into our department's curriculum," says Demoz Gebre-Egziabher, a professor of aerospace engineering and mechanics and the principal investigator for the project, which is housed in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics. "We've started a program that we can integrate into the curriculum and build upon. And from the research aspect of the project, we will be a success. We have published papers, and whether or not we launch, I believe the Air Force will use our research."

A Global Positioning System receiver.
A Global Positioning System receiver is just one of many parts used by the Minnesat team to build their mini satellite.

Research is a key component in the competition and differentiates each team's entry. The objective of Minnesat is to use the Global Positioning System (GPS) to determine the orientation of small satellites. Using GPS for navigation is not a new concept, says Gebre-Egziabher. It's currently used in large satellites and other projects. But to date, the concept has not been translated into a small scale, which is the goal of this project. "We are trying to design and build something that is much smaller and less expensive than the current system. Because the satellite has to be ready to fly, we will have verified on the ground that this research is viable," explains Gebre-Egziabher.

The University of Minnesota's mini-satellite features GPS antennas on an aluminum hexagonal structure covered with solar panels. The team has built a variety of components for the satellite, including a communication system, a flight computer, and a monitoring and control device.

Transforming students into engineers

For the students, the project has been a labor of love. Participation is completely voluntary, and team members don't earn traditional class credit for the work. Instead, they squeeze it into schedules bursting with course work and part-time jobs--holing up in the team's office in Akerman Hall seven to eight hours a day, five or six days a week. Teams participating in the national competition receive a budget from the sponsoring organizations, and Mintz says teams are allowed to use any additional money they raise and as many donated materials as they can secure. The University of Minnesota team received a donation from alumnus Richard DeLeo, a retired vice president of aeronautical research at the former Rosemount Aerospace, as well as help from companies such as Goodrich, Honeywell, Lockheed-Martin, and Tennent.

"This is real-world engineering, and we are doing the same things we'd be doing if we worked for a company," says Jason Mintz, the Minnesat student project manager who completed a degree in aerospace engineering in December 2006. "We get a big piece of the pie on this project because the team is so small. Instead of doing the same thing over and over again on a piece of the project, like you might do on other student projects, we get to work on a huge variety of things. That's something you don't often get to do as a student, other than at this University."

For more information, see Minnesat.