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Sky's again the limit for USU students

Utah team building tiny satellite to put in orbit

USU students, from left, Phillip Anderson, Steve Berkley, Jeff Brady, Ryan Schaefermeyer and Jacob Beck display a prototype frame for a tiny CubeSat satellite.
USU students, from left, Phillip Anderson, Steve Berkley, Jeff Brady, Ryan Schaefermeyer and Jacob Beck display a prototype frame for a tiny CubeSat satellite.
Mary-AnnMuffoleto/Utah State University

Several years after NASA canceled a program to loft student experiments aboard the space shuttle, Utah State University is returning to space.

Members of the Logan-based university's Microgravity Research Team are joining with other university groups to launch satellites through the CubeSat program run by California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. They are building a tiny satellite inside a cube 10 centimeters (3.9 inches) on a side.

"We kind of follow their size and weight restrictions, and they coordinate the launch of our satellites into space," said Steve Berkley, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering.

The microgravity group and students around the world are excited about "getting their experiments into space. And that's something that hasn't been available for a while," he said.

When space grew scarce on shuttles, NASA canceled the popular program to carry young scientists' experiments into space. It was a great program, he said.

"So then our team's been trying to find any way to get back into space." A year and a half ago, after the students ran across CubeSat, they began the new satellite program.

The Microgravity Research Team has 20 to 25 members, he said, with six or eight dedicated to the CubeSat project. All of the members working on CubeSat are undergraduates, mostly majors in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and physics.

Anyone on campus with an interest in satellites is invited to join, "if they're ambitious and want to get involved in space research."

Each CubeSat costs $40,000 to launch, pocket change in comparison with a major satellite launch, which could cost millions of dollars. Various launch facilities, including Russian, are available.

Berkley said it is a relatively affordable way to get into space.

CalPoly will "integrate all these CubeSats on the rockets as secondary payloads," he said.

"We plan on being a big player in the CubeSat program for many years to come," he said. Because this is the first such satellite for USU, the team decided to use it for experiments and to broadcast a recording from the original Sputnik satellite that was launched 50 years ago this week.

"We're going to recreate that signal, retransmit that signal as a way of commemorating and recognizing Sputnik as the pioneer of all satellites," he said. It will be USU's calling card, saying the microgravity group is sending its experiments into space.

Besides the signal broadcast, the group's first CubeSat will test electric field measurement devices and other equipment developed by USU's Space Dynamics Laboratory. The lab also will help foot the bill for the project.

The signal will be transmitted on an amateur radio frequency. Meanwhile, the group is preparing a ground station at the lab to track the satellite and relay commands and data.

"And also receive that historic signal," Berkley said.

Although the science will be important, he said, "I really like the Sputnik part because that's the more fun part for me."