NASA to launch students' nanosatellite

February 12, 2014 by Kevin Stacey, Brown University
The fully functional EQUiSat package — solar panels, LED beacon, control and communications gear, batteries — will fit into this four-inch cube. Building the satellite from scratch will keep the project’s cost to around $13,000.

EQUiSat, a nanosatellite being built by a team of Brown University students, has been cleared for launch.

NASA announced last week that EQUiSat is among 16 small satellites selected to fly on rockets to be launched over the three-year period beginning in 2015. EQUiSat has not been assigned to a particular rocket, but the announcement assures that the student-led project has a ticket to ride.

"It was pretty great to hear the news on Thursday," said Hannah Varner, a senior engineering concentrator and one of the team's leaders. "We've all been in disbelief for the last few days."

The launch will be part of NASA's CubeSats Launch Initiative. CubeSats are miniature spacecraft—four-inch cubes weighing around two pounds—that can be included as auxiliary payloads on rockets flown for other primary missions. The program's purpose is to spur innovation in the design of relatively low-cost satellites and to get students interested in space technology. To get into the program, the Brown team submitted an application and made presentations to two review boards that judged the project's technical feasibility and overall merit.

EQUiSat's mission will be largely educational. The tiny satellite will carry a flashing LED beacon that will be visible to the naked eye as it passes through the night sky. In Providence, the beacon should be approximately as bright as the North Star, flashing every two minutes when in the . EQUiSat will also broadcast via radio data on the health of its systems and its orientation relative to the Earth and sun. The signal will be available to anyone with a simple amateur radio receiver.

The idea is for EQUiSat to be a visible and audible ambassador from space to students and space enthusiasts on earth. The Brown team plans to combine the launch with a public outreach program. An app will help people track EQUiSat and know when it's visible at their location. The team also plans to put together lessons that use EQUiSat to teach middle and about satellites, orbital science, and space in general.

Solar arrays will charge the battery that aligns the satellite, powers its LED beacon, and sends radio messages about the health of its systems.

"Satellites have become so common but so few people know how important they are to everything we do," Varner said. "They're crucial to cell phones and TV and everything. So exposing a younger audience and a non-science audience to satellites was important for us."

Another aspect of the mission is to show that space can be accessible to just about anyone with enough interest to try to get there.

"CubeSats are a really great architecture because, compared to other kinds of satellites, you can build them really quickly and get a launch comparatively easily," said Emily Gilbert, a physics concentrator and an EQUiSat team leader. "They're launched as secondary payloads so you don't need to commission your own rocket for hundreds of millions of dollars. So it's great for student groups without a lot of money and without a lot of time."

EQUiSat will be inexpensive even by CubeSat standards. The students are building their satellite essentially from scratch, despite the fact that CubeSat parts—chassis, solar panels, and other components—can be purchased. Those parts aren't cheap, and the build cost for most CubeSats is generally north of $30,000. But the EQUiSat team is working on a budget of around $13,000. Ultimately the students hope the design they develop for EQUiSat will lead to a CubeSat that can be built for $3,000 or less.

"We're trying to prove that it's possible to meet all of the specifications and all of the requirements without the very, very costly technology that is out there to build a satellite," Varner said.

The students have worked for the last three years to design and build EQUiSat's key systems. An attitude control system will align the satellite with Earth's magnetic field to keep the LED pointed at a visible angle. A solar array will charge a set of lithium iron phosphate batteries, which will in turn power the LED and radio communications system. All of those systems will be carried on a chassis that can withstand the vibration of launch and the harsh vacuum of space. The team will spend the next year or so refining those systems and putting them all together on their tiny spacecraft.

Four years to design, build, and test plus a three-year launch window could make EQUiSat a seven-year project. The team trains successive classes to carry the project forward: “We have a really enthusiastic bunch coming up behind us. We have a lot of faith in them.”

The EQUiSat venture was launched in 2011 as part of an engineering design class taught by Rick Fleeter, adjunct professor of engineering. The project morphed into a student club in 2012 and now has around 30 student members. Fleeter, who founded a private satellite company before coming to Brown, oversees the club. But this is very much a student-owned project, he says.

"They're just going on their own energy. I kind of got them pointed in the right direction, but it's not like I have to encourage them or say, 'Gee, guys, we ought to have a meeting.' They just go."

The original student founders were Kelsey MacMillan, Alexander Neff, Alexander Carrere, and Michael Monn, all members of the 2012 class. They passed the torch to the current group of leaders, including Varner, Gilbert, Kelly Hering, Tyler Del Sesto and Casey Meehan. All except Meehan are seniors, so they'll need to pass the torch again. They're quite confident that younger will get EQUiSat into space.

"We have a really enthusiastic bunch coming up behind us," Gilbert said. "We have a lot of faith in them."

The team could get its launch call anytime starting next year through 2017.

Explore further: NASA launches next generation PhoneSat, Ames-developed launch adapter

More information:

Related Stories

Student-built satellite sends data from space

January 29, 2014

A tiny satellite, dubbed KySat-2, built by students at the University of Kentucky and Morehead State University is currently orbiting about 300 miles above the Earth, circling the planet every 90 minutes. The satellite, launched ...

NASA's latest space technology small satellite phones home

December 6, 2013

PhoneSat 2.4, NASA's next generation smartphone cubesat has phoned home. The tiny spacecraft that uses an off-the-shelf smartphone for a brain has completed checkout and sent back data confirming all systems are "go" for ...

Student-built satellite to prepare NASA instrument

October 26, 2011

( -- When the M-Cubed satellite, built by University of Michigan students, goes into orbit, it will become the first CubeSat to test a NASA instrument for major space missions. It is scheduled to be launched on ...

Recommended for you

Mars Curiosity celebrates sol 2,000

March 23, 2018

NASA's Mars Curiosity rover just hit a new milestone: its two-thousandth Martian day, or sol, on the Red Planet. An image mosaic taken by the rover in January offers a preview of what comes next.

Radio nebula discovered around the pulsar PSR J0855–4644

March 21, 2018

Using the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in India, an international team of astronomers has detected a diffuse radio emission forming a nebula around the pulsar PSR J0855–4644. The finding is reported March 9 ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.