Ethiopian scientist advises U.S. Air Force on satellite projects

Elias Kifle | February 12th, 2009

The University of Minnesota’s entry into January’s final University Nanosatellite Program competition won’t be launched into space.

However, the U.S. Air Force has selected the University team to participate again. Team members are already recruiting new students, while some are still working on satellite components to use for the next two-year competition cycle, Nanosat-6.

The program has two aims: training students to build satellites and provide the Air Force with useful research, aerospace engineering and mechanics associate professor Demoz Gebre-Egziabher said.

As the faculty adviser, he’s responsible for pitching an idea for the satellite’s science mission.

Since Gebre-Egziabher’s research involves Global Positioning Systems, the University’s nanosatellite projects have tried to use it in novel ways.

Goldeneye, as the satellite is known, is an apt name, as its science mission was to keep an eye on the Earth’s surface conditions, like ocean wave heights and wind speeds, by analyzing reflected GPS signals.

Aerospace graduate student Jim Pogemiller is writing his master’s thesis on the GPS sensing the satellite was meant to do, and he said a lot of the work he did for it, like making sure his radar system would work in space, will go into his thesis.

Though equipment already exists for remote sensing, it would be handy to be able to do it with GPS since most satellites already use it, Gebre-Ebziabher said.

The upcoming Nanosat-6 science mission is an extension of the previous project, Gebre-Ebziabher said. But instead of sensing the Earth’s surface, this satellite will use GPS to sense other satellites in space.

When one satellite is repairing another — like the Hubble Space Telescope — it’s important it knows where its target is to avoid a collision.

Existing sensors can do this, but GPS would be cheaper, weigh less and require less power, Gebre-Ebziabher said.

Though Gebre-Ebziabher pitches the science mission, it’s up to students to figure out how to accomplish it.

That means designing the satellite, fabricating it, testing it and updating it, mechanical engineering senior and project field manager Ellie Field, said.

“It’s real engineering,” Gebre-Ebziabher said. “It’s a lot of work.”

Aerospace engineering senior Erin Mussoni, who was in charge of satellite communications (getting information to and from the satellite using radio signals), found that out. “I didn’t sleep for five months,” she said.

One of the challenges, she said, was finding and paying for materials that are space-ready.

Materials with impurities or air bubbles, like plastic and fiberglass, can expand and explode in space. Space ready materials are expensive, she said.

Though the Air Force provides $110,000 to get accepted teams started, Gebre-Ebziabher said the teams are expected to raise more than that.

Goldeneye got a lot of help from businesses, mostly in the form of product donations from companies like Honeywell and Lockheed Martin, he said. He estimated the Goldeneye team’s fundraising at least tripled the Air Force’s seed money.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration also supports the program, through scholarships given to Nanosat students through the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium .

Aerospace engineering professor Bill Garrard, who directs the MSGC, said the draw for NASA is to fill the pipeline of engineers and scientists.

Though Mussoni said she hasn’t found much use for the ham radio license she got in order to operate Goldeneye’s radios, the project did help on the career front: “This project probably gave me my internship,” she said.

“Engineers want to talk about design projects, and if you have something unique like this, they just go wild over it,” she added.

Garrard said he thinks University students have become increasingly interested in this kind of activity during his time here.

“I think students realize that these opportunities really are important for them in terms of getting a job,” he said.

But aerospace senior Kyle Zakrzewski , who will take over as field manager, said he does it because it’s fun.

“We’re a bunch of undergrad students making a satellite. I mean, that’s pretty cool.”

- BY Tiffany Smith | Minnesota Daily