A small satellite built and programmed at Vermont Technical College will soon be orbiting Earth, but its launch date has been pushed back because of the government shutdown. Still, the college will be the first in New England to have its own cube satellite launched from NASA’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia, beating MIT and Harvard, among others.
Cube satellites are 4-inch aluminum cubes that act like mini-robots in space, are much cheaper to construct than traditional satellites and have made it possible for smaller colleges to launch space programs.
“Cube satellites provide a unique opportunity for universities to get involved in space exploration,” said Carl Brandon, a professor of Science and Aeronautical Engineering Technology at Vermont Tech in Randolph Center and the driving force behind the CubeSat project.
Vermont Lunar Cube’s primary mission is to make navigation estimates for a future moon project, in which another cube satellite will orbit the moon. But it’s also a prototype project to show that it’s possible to explore space on a budget. The satellite will hopefully stay up in space three to five years, and many more students at Vermont tech will be able to use the satellite to make navigation measures, Brandon said.
Most of the CubeSat’s software has been developed by Dan Turner, 22, who graduated from Vermont Tech in May.
Turner started working on the project two summers ago, when needing a summer job, he asked Brandon if he could be his assistant. Shortly thereafter he was writing code for the CubeSat. Turner had done some software engineering in the past, but mostly for the Web.
The biggest difference in working with aerospace software is that you can’t tweak the code as you go, he said.
“In Web design it’s easier to correct your mistakes,” Turner said. With the CubeSat it’s different. “It’s really easy to have errors that will completely destroy your entire project.”
Several students worked on the project, but Turner has been the most long term. Now he needs to stay on at Vermont Tech to teach the next generation of space explorers how to use his code.
“I don’t think anyone else knows how to control the satellite when it’s up there,” he said. “I have to stay and teach them the system.”
The satellite will be steered by radio waves, made through short commands on a computer in a small shack at the end of a hallway in a building at VTC. On the roof above the small room a 15-foot-plus steel antenna has been installed to secure the radio communication.
It’s pretty rare that undergraduate students get hands-on experience with space programs, said Turner.
“I don’t know of any other colleges when you can show up and say, ‘Hey, I want to work on that satellite,’” he said.
If successfully launched, the satellite will be visible from Earth via built-in LEDs. The lights will be flashing the satellite’s nickname, ChubSat, in Morse code.
Brandon has been working on the project for more than eight years, and it’s taken the last two to just construct the cube. When they started they collaborated with Middlebury College and Norwich University, but in the end only students and faculty from Vermont Tech worked on the construction, Brandon said.
“I wrote all the grants for it,” he said. “I physically built all the hardware, I had students working on the software and I put it all together.”
The cube satellite cost about $50,000 to construct; the launch is another $125,000. It’s all been paid for through grants. In total Vermont Tech has received about $500,000 in NASA grants, money that will also be used to fund Vermont Tech’s future lunar projects. In addition to the grants NASA has donated software worth up to $5 million that has been used for the project.
In mid September, Brandon sent ChubSat off to the Air Force Research Lab at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., where it will be positioned with CubeSats from 13 other U.S. colleges. Among them are CubeSats from the University of Florida and the University of Hawaii.
Brandon and Turner will travel to Virginia to watch the launch.
“I hope it’s a success,” Turner said. “I’ve done so much work and other people have done so much work.”
The launch, which was scheduled for Nov. 4, has been delayed because of the government shutdown. Brandon is now waiting to get a new launch date from NASA. But he’s not too concerned about the delay. His cube satellite will still be in space before MIT’s.
“It feels great that Vermont Tech is beating all the schools in New England,” he said.