NMSU students explore new technologies for the ‘new space age’


LAS CRUCES – Engineering students at New Mexico State University work with aerospace industry leader Northrop Grumman on projects that could one day solve problems in military and commercial satellite missions with CubeSats – vehicles miniature spaceships that have a big impact on our lives today and the promise of even more for the future.

This multidisciplinary company, launched in the fall of 2019, is headed by Steven Stochaj, acting department head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Hyeongjun Park, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. It was born out of discussions with Christopher Long, alumnus of NMSU engineering and former vice president of national security systems at Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems. Long also sits on the Executive Advisory Board of the College of Engineering.

Northrop Grumman awarded a grant to NMSU in the fall of 2019 for engineering students to work on the satellite alignment system and space maneuvers. The two-year project has been extended for one year due to the pandemic and provides for a call for applications for renewal at the end of the grant in spring 2022. The ultimate goal is to launch two CubeSats that can align and dock.

“They are looking for an autonomous docking of the satellites,” said Stochaj, also director of the NanoSat Lab at NMSU. “They have huge military satellites and when they run out of fuel, for example, they have to dock with another satellite to refuel. In theory, they do this while staying in orbit, but there is the tug of the sun and the moon, and the Earth is not exactly round, so it is very difficult for the satellites to stay in position. Some of these satellites are the size of a car. It is not an easy thing to do.

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In addition to refueling, small satellites can do a lot of things, like in-orbit services, repairing faulty spacecraft, or manufacturing in space. The space industry uses smaller and smaller devices. But Stochaj pointed to future opportunities in commercial and military applications of providing Internet connectivity to operations.

CubeSats are small, constructed from standard-sized aluminum units of approximately 10cm x 10cm x 10cm (just under four square inches) and typically weigh less than 3 pounds per unit. They can be built in combination up to 24 units. Due to their small size and weight, they are easier and cheaper to launch as a payload on a rocket.

The advantages offered by these small space vehicles also face the greatest challenges – they cannot use large components or actuators or large thrusters. The on-board processor is small and limited, so it cannot perform at the same level as much larger satellites.

Park, director of robotics, unmanned vehicles and intelligent systems CONtrol Lab (RUVICON Lab), said the students were developing autonomous rendezvous technologies using an optical alignment system for satellites.

They use algorithms with two CubeSats – one being the target and the other the imager. The target CubeSat will have five LEDs attached, one for each corner and one in the middle. The CubeSat imager, equipped with a high quality camera, takes pictures of the target to find its position in relation to the imager. The two CubeSats can line up.

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“In addition to the roster, we are looking at docking,” said Stochaj. “One of our students came up with the idea of ​​using electromagnets to bring the satellites together, which are smaller, lighter and softer than the robotic arms that were used. Northrop Grumman liked this idea and widened the scope of the projects.

Once the project is ready, Stochaj and Park will request that the CubeSats take a “carpool” during a rocket launch. NASA’s CubeSat program gives small satellites the ability to fly rockets as auxiliary payloads in previously planned missions.

It won’t be the first time that a small NMSU engineered satellite has been launched into space. The SmallSat program now led by Stochaj was started by former NMSU engineering professor Steve Horan in 2001. Horan’s Three-Corner Cube mission won the University’s first NanoSat competition from the Air Research Laboratory Force, which earned him a launch opportunity from the Air Force.

Stochaj and Park joined forces in 2018, when Park was hired at NMSU, and received SmallSat funding from NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

For Northrop Grumman’s current project alone, Stochaj estimates that there have been almost 75 students involved in their senior design projects (required for all engineering students) as well as the Student Satellite group and a few computer science students.

“Mechanical and aerospace engineering students learn about orbital mechanics and the dynamics and control of spacecraft in order to know how to control spacecraft and how to design spacecraft, but many sensors and electronic equipment require the skills of engineering students. electric. In addition, we need computers and astronomers for science missions. This CubeSat project has a combination of engineering and science students, ”Park said.

At the project kickoff meeting, Northrop Grumman’s innovative technology team indicated that they wanted to test some of their components in space using these CubeSats, Park explained. “For them, this is a very good opportunity to test because the students will develop these CubeSats and then if they will provide some components that require certification in near space in space flight. this is a great advantage for both parties.

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The relationship provides benefits and opportunities for students with the company.

“They want to develop the workforce for space engineering,” Park said. “They kind of develop brand loyalty for students to work in their companies. The fact that students understand the complexities of this industry makes them very valuable employees. It really is a big investment in the talent of the students.

Stochaj noted that a few students have already been offered employment by the company.

“It’s like an internship for these students while they’re in school,” Stochaj said. “You can’t say how important this is to the students. It is difficult to identify student specialties initially, but it provides an opportunity for cross-training in a real-world experience. This type of experience gives students that extra factor that will expand their opportunities in industry and academia.

“Now it’s the new space age,” Park said. “With companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin and at Las Cruces Virgin Galactic, it’s a new era for aerospace engineering.”

“EYE ON RESEARCH” is provided by New Mexico State University. This week’s article was written by Linda Fresques of the College of Engineering. She can be reached at 575-646-7416 or [email protected]

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