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Check Out this Student-Designed Satellite [VIDEO]

Visitors at last month’s FIRST® Championship got the chance to see just how far a STEM education and a little bit of imagination can take you: To the renowned robotics competition at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, and maybe even into space. The beverage cooler-looking contraption on exhibit was actually a student-built satellite that had logged a successful test flight into near space over the Arizona desert the week before.

Bird’s eye view of a working satellite, soon to be reconfigured into a NASA CubeSat, as part of a senior class project undertaken by a group of engineering students at the University of Texas at Austin. The Styrofoam box and components seen here completed a successful test flight via weather balloon to the edge of space over the Arizona desert on April 19.

Now in its 25th year, FIRST fosters interest in engineering and computer science amongst K-12 through robotic competitions. Every year, FIRST establishes a range of games that students design and build robots to compete at regional and state levels. The annual championship event, which draws teams from around the globe, is “the preeminent celebration of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).” Thousands of students from around the world came to the competition to show off their team robots.

This year Qualcomm Incorporated (“Qualcomm”) was there, as Presenting Sponsor, and showcasing a different kind of student-designed project — a nanosatellite built by a team of engineering students at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Answering the call

Gene Swiech, a Staff Engineer Manager at Qualcomm Technologies, Inc., is a mentor to the UT team, and as part of the effort, reached out to some of the company’s most high-profile engineers for guidance and support. “We wanted to take a Qualcomm® Snapdragon™ processor [a product of Qualcomm Technologies, Inc.] and put it in a NASA satellite” explains Swiech.

Aiming high

The roots of his involvement—and Qualcomm’s—in the DIY satellite scene, trace back to a different class project. Swiech specializes in RF issues, so when a local high school (Mount Carmel in Rancho Peñasquitos, California) needed help with an RF problem — they reached out to him. Through contacts there, he ultimately became involved with the NASA CubeSat program, an educational initiative that promotes STEM education. Soon after, he began to mentor a team of engineering students at the University of Texas at Austin. Their senior class project was ambitious: Design and build a nanosatellite with the goal of getting “manifested”—earning a coveted spot on the cargo list for a rocket launch.

NASA’s CubeSat Launch initiative (CSLI) provides opportunities for small satellites to fly on rockets as auxiliary payloads. To qualify, there are a number of strict requirements to be met and obstacles to overcome. Per FAA rules, the payload cannot exceed five pounds. In addition, the students must prove that it can survive the journey to near-space. To do this, the satellite is launched in a weather balloon that ascends to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, around 100,000 feet, where it takes readings (barometric pressure, temperature, etc.) and pictures “at altitude,” then parachutes back to Earth.

Along the way it has to transmit what it’s learned and seen —no small feat given the thin atmosphere (less than 1 percent) and cold temperatures (minus 60 degrees). Among the big challenges associated with operating at altitude, battery power is paramount — five hours of charge is required. The flight takes about 90 minutes to reach “burst altitude”—the point at which the balloon bursts. Then it’s a about a half hour’s parachute glide back down to Earth. “So it can’t run out of power. You have to get good data back, ” Swiech explains, “ And it can’t crash.”

The right stuff

Among the satellite components is a Venus GPS, which is capable of recording at near space altitudes; a Wi-Fi connection and amplifier; and a patch antenna that was designed by a student on the UT team and presented to a former Qualcomm engineer with extensive RF experience — Founding Chairman and CEO Emeritus Dr. Irwin Jacobs.

Controlling it all is the motherboard. For this flight, the students replaced their previous system with a new DragonBoard™, an exposed-board platform that inventors and developers can use for prototyping, integrating hardware components, testing, and more. The (IFC6410) DragonBoard features the mobile technology found in the company’s most powerful processor, the Snapdragon 800. The new DragonBoard survived the trip to the edge of the atmosphere just fine, by the way.

The program was written for Android and an Android app was also used to find the satellite’s landing area for retrieval.

All the elements came together when the team staged a test launch on April 19 near Maricopa, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. How does one find a balloon capable of ascending nearly 19 miles into the sky? “We hitched a ride on a standard issue weather balloon launched by Arizona Near Space Research, a non-profit that uses balloons strictly for educational research purposes,” Swiech explains. “Funded in part by NASA, this organization was created to promote STEM education.”

Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. engineers Lawrence King and Gene Swiech at April’s FIRST Robotics Championship. King, the guru behind the DragonBoard platform, is holding a DragonBoard similar to the one that powered the satellite (the Styrofoam box in front). The components will next be fitted into the box being held by Swiech, called a CubeSat. As part of a NASA initiative designed to promote STEM to young people, the CubeSat is eligible to be included in the payload for a NASA rocket launch.

Up next

With the satellite near-space ready, the next phase of the project focuses on form factor. The components must now be fitted into an official CubeSat, a cube-shaped satellite, approximately four inches long, with a volume of about one quart, and weighing in at about three pounds. But that’s just the price of admission. As the NASA website explains: to participate in the CSLI program, CubeSat investigations should be consistent with NASA's Strategic Plan and the Education Strategic Coordination Framework. In other words, research goals should address aspects of science, exploration, technology development, education or operations.

View from the edge of space. A photo transmitted from the student-designed satellite launched April 19 over Arizona.

The students are now putting together an electrical design and a software design for their CubeSat. And mentors and friends like Swiech, Lawrence, and other well wishers are in the mix, ready to provide advice and counsel as needed, and keeping fingers crossed as the team’s invention moves another step closer to a NASA rocket launch.

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