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CubeSat team launches high-altitude balloon at April Engineering Expo

view from high-altitude balloon
This image was taken during the maiden voyage of the CubeSat team's high-altitude balloon, launched on March 22. The team's second balloon launch took place during Engineering Expo in April. Their long-term goal is to be the first South Dakota team to launch a small cube-shaped research satellite through NASA's CubeSat Launch Initiative.

A seven-hour, 150-mile flight at a maximum altitude of 85,000 feet and the retrieval of an undamaged payload—these stats describe a successful April 20 launch for the South Dakota State University CubeSat team.

The CubeSat club, begun officially in fall 2017, fosters interest and passion in aerospace engineering among graduate and undergraduate students. The long-term goal is to be the first South Dakota team to launch a small cube-shaped research satellite. Approximately 20 students worked on this spring’s high-latitude balloon launches.

Assistant mechanical engineering professor Marco Ciarcià, main adviser and founder of the SDSU CubeSat club, ranked the overall success of the team’s second high-altitude balloon flight as seven out of 10. “We’re gradually increasing the complexity level of the missions—we’re taking baby steps toward the ultimate goal,” he said.

High-altitude balloon launch at Engineering Expo
Club adviser Marco Ciarcià, far left, and the CubeSat team launch their payload during Engineering Expo.

Through the CubeSat Launch Initiative, NASA offers universities and nonprofit organizations the opportunity to design a research experiment that fits into a stack of 10-centimenter cubes, about four inches on each side, Ciarcià explained. The single-unit cube must weigh less than 1.33 kilograms, about three pounds. Once the experiment is designed the club will apply to have its small satellite payload launched into space.

“It’s low-cost access to space,” said Ciarcià. NASA’s goal is to launch CubeSat missions from all 50 states. Since the program began nine years ago, 61 CubeSats have been launched and 150 CubeSat missions have been selected from 38 states and the District of Columbia, according to the NASA website. South Dakota is one of the states that has not done so.

After attending a small satellite conference, Ciarcià decided SDSU needed a student organization dedicated to the design, development and construction of a CubeSat. Before coming to SDSU in fall 2016, he worked with small satellite guidance system design during a research fellowship at the Spacecraft Robotics Laboratory of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

CubeSat meetings take place once a week during the school year.  “Newcomers interested in becoming involved in CubeSat are always welcome,” Ciarcià said. The club is open to graduate and undergraduate students from engineering as well as other majors who can contribute to the project.

For the upcoming year, James Sorensen, a junior mechanical engineering major from Watertown, will take over the role as Cubesat president from graduating mechanical engineering senior Rishard Rameez. “Rishard, with his tremendous passion and dedication, has been instrumental in establishing the Cubesat team. He led the team responsible for two successful high-altitude balloon launches,” Ciarcià said.

Preparing for balloon launch

The CubeSat members working on the balloon launch were divided into five teams based on their interests: communication, structural design and integration, sensors, payload and altitude control. During weekly meetings, each team leader gave a progress report.

Incoming president Sorensen said he joined CubeSat “to build something meant to operate in space.” He is also in U.S. Air Force ROTC. At a February meeting, Sorenson, who is on the structural team, reported on regulations for high-altitude balloons.  He recommended getting clearance from Sioux Falls air control before launching the balloon, which prevailing winds might send to southwest Minnesota or northwest Iowa.

Graduate student Spencer Harwood, who is on the altitude control team, said, “You can calculate and study all you want, but to collect data from space is important.” The Brookings native received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in December 2017.

The CubeSat team tested its prototype’s GPS system and sensor capabilities during a March 22 trial run. The science payload, which monitors radiation, was part of the April launch during Engineering Expo.

Engaging faculty mentors

While brainstorming ideas for a collaborative research project, Ciarcià and assistant professor Anamika Prasad came up with the idea of tracking the effect of space radiation on the mechanical and structural properties of bone. Prasad specializes in biomaterials, including assessing the effect of medical radiation to fight cancer on bone tissue.

“We are starting off on the journey through CubeSat; this is our master plan,” she said. For this research project, the CubeSat Team will design an environmental chamber or biohousing “to keep the bone alive, meaning that the cells are active.”

Furthermore, the experiment does not return—the satellite orbit degrades and it burns up. Consequently, Prasad explained, “The bone needs to talk to us.” Sensors will transmit information on the behavior, mechanical properties and composition of the bone, including a biochemistry analysis of the liquid in the bone.

These facets of the project open opportunities for students from disciplines, such as chemistry and biochemistry and electrical engineering, to become involved in CubeSat.

In the 2017-2018 academic year, two more mechanical engineering faculty, assistant professor Todd Letcher and associate professor Greg Michna, have gotten involved, securing a one-year, $5,000 South Dakota Space Grant Consortium grant to support the CubeSat Team, with the possibility of future funding as well.

“We’re enthusiastic supporters of team projects,” said Michna, whose expertise is in thermal management. Letcher has been working with materials to do radiation shielding for about a year and is heavily involved with other undergraduate research projects.

“This project gives students experience with systems integration and communication,” Michna said.

“This hands-on experience will create excitement among our students and the study will build faculty expertise and credibility to attract sponsorship and funding,” Prasad said. However, Ciarcià pointed out, “first we need to learn how to operate a small satellite in space.”