Connecticut Post (Sunday)
Students design, build and launch a satellite
Fairfield native part of team from Brown University
How much does a satellite cost? Depending on the size, function, complexity and intended longevity, you’re looking at somewhere between tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars spent over many years of design and engineering.
CubeSats, which is the size of a loaf of bread, are far less expensive but still start around $40,000 to $50,000, and that’s basically just for highly engineered box without launch costs.
A team of Brown University students, including Dheraj Ganjkunta, who grew up in Fairfield, designed, engineered and deployed a satellite, on a budget of $30,000. The off-theshelf cost of the parts was on a shoestring in space terms: about $7,000. The most difficult part of the project was maintaining confidence that they could pull it together in a short time.
“There were moments where a test failed or a part didn’t work where we had very little time to fix it. In a normal project, you have months or years to fix a mistake,” said Ganjkunta, the lead program manager of the satellite project. Ganjkunta said he and his team members often had to push through their misgivings to get things done. “We had to trust the best we’re making were going to work.”
Powered by 48 Energizer AA batteries bought at a CVS, the SBUDNIC satellite is a proof-of-concept for low-cost, high-speed, space engineering and an experiment in preventing future space trash. SBUDNIC carries a simple, experimental device — a 3-D printed sheet of plastic that looks like an orange umbrella — that will passively drag it out of orbit to burn up in the atmosphere.
“Given the size of the satellite, given our budget, which was next to nothing, and given the timeline we have, what can we accomplish?” said Marco Cross, chief engineer of the project. “Ultimately, we felt that we could accomplish that was the most technically advanced was deploying this drag system incorporating low cost materials.”
If we’re going to keep relying on satellites, low-cost ways to dispose of them need to be developed. That’s where this experimental drag system comes in.
Cross likened the drag system to slowing down a coasting car by blasting its windshield with millions of bugs. As long as you don’t accelerate, eventually the bugs will slow you down.
This isn’t the first time a drag system has been used on a satellite, but they also tend to be high-cost and bespoke. Cross and his team managed to produce one for the low cost of $130.
“We are not the first people to put a drag sail on a satellite,” Cross said. “However, we are one of the cheapest, and we are certainly the lightest and simplest. So I’ll hang my hat not on being first but on being cheaper, lighter and easier to deploy.”
Fortune favors the bold, or crazy
The space industry is
small and globally distributed. Fleeter divides his time between teaching at Brown University in Rhode Island and La Sapienza University of Rome. His industry contacts in Rome at the satellite transportation and waste management firm D-Orbit told him about an open slot on a Space X rocket. Someone had canceled their project.
“This guy came to me, I was the only person he knew on the planet who was going to take his challenge,” Fleeter said. “Rick, I have a free slot for you if you can be ready by Christmas.”
That call came in February. The window was nine months to be ready to launch.
“So I went to the students, it was the second week of class,” Fleeter recalled. “I said we can do the class, and here’s all the subjects we’re going to cover, or we can throw it all out the window and build a satellite, which is going to be a lot more fun but a lot more work.”
The students in Fleeter’s “Design of Space Systems” class jumped on the challenge
of designing, engineering and launching a rocket. A core group of students including Cross and Ganjkunta formed from Fleeter’s class and wrangled roughly 40 studentengineers to work on the project.
“Our turnover rate for people was like 10 percent a month or something,” said Ganjkunta, who spent his time coordinating the engineers and making sure the team was funded and legally set to launch. “Students drop out. They’ll find something more interesting to do with their free time or school will happen or something else.”
After a year of scrambling, testing and stressing the day of the launch came. The core team and some of the engineers gathered together at a “mission control” to watch their launch and turn on their satellite. But at the critical hour, the satellite’s radio failed. The students had no idea if their experiment deployed successfully.
“We predicted when we would get our first signal and we were all on Zoom,” Ganjkunta said. “But we didn’t hear anything, and we were like, ‘What’s going on?”
The students had planned on taking photos from the satellite using the radio controls. But the radio never turned on. It seemed like SBUDNIC was dead in space.
It wasn’t until they cross-referenced the 18th Space Defense Squadron’s data on Space-Track.org that 10 months later they were able to confirm that their satellite had deployed and the drag device was working. Radar scans showed that their satellite was much larger than it was when launched; the umbrella had opened.
The students think that this means the only thing that failed to work as expected was the onboard radio. If the drag parachute had failed to deploy that would have meant the satellite’s onboard computer had never “woken up” after being towed to high orbit. But it was open and clearly pulling the satellite down to earth.
“I was so happy when we got this external confirmation,” Ganjkunta said. “If the drag device worked ... that tells us that everything but the radio worked, which is actually fantastic.”
In about six years, SBUDNIC will perish in an atmospheric Viking funeral as planned. Fleeter sees this as a triumph for small scale, homegrown space engineering.
“We have elevated space out of reach of the normal person,” Fleeter said. “But it’s also valid to do something amateur, on a student level. What we showed in SBUDNIC is that with a bunch of students and no budget you can do something important.”