Romanian students visit campus to learn about construction of satellites

Jack Hubbard Romanian

Graduate student Mugurel Balan of Romania, left, and Professor Bob Twiggs of Stanford confer about CubeSats. These lightweight satellites are a true research bargain.

"Made in Romania." That's a claim that can't be made about any satellite--but that may soon change. Five Romanian scholars came to Stanford Aug. 26 to Sept. 4 to meet with Bob Twiggs, a consulting professor in the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department, and learn to build sophisticated satellites barely bigger than Rubik's cubes.

"When they go back, they'll build the first satellites built by anyone in Romania," said Twiggs, who also is teaching university students in Bogota the skills that would allow Colombia to produce its first satellites.

The satellites, cube-shaped with 4-inch sides, are nicknamed "CubeSats." They weigh less than a kilogram (2.2 pounds) and cost $25,000 to build and $40,000 to launch--a bargain compared to large satellites, which can cost $150 million to $400 million to build and $12,000 to $25,000 per kilogram to launch (a large satellite can weigh several tons).

The Romanian Space Agency (ROSA), the University of Bucharest and Politehnica University of Bucharest sponsored the students' trip. Stanford does not charge for the training, which is offered as a courtesy between universities. Twiggs said the CubeSat community is to small satellites what the Linux community is to computer operating systems--an international group devoted to open sharing of information to optimize the technology. Currently more than 60 universities worldwide are building CubeSats.

The CubeSats will be used to launch experiments and cameras into low-Earth orbit (400 to 600 kilometers, or 249 to 373 miles from the Earth's surface), said Mugurel Balan, a graduate student in physics at the University of Bucharest. He met Twiggs this spring at a "Hands On for Space" conference in Aalborg, Denmark, and was intrigued to hear about satellite experiments Twiggs' students had launched to detect micro-materials in space.

The Romanian students are designing three experiments for their CubeSats. The first will house sensors to detect dust from meteors; this will help the scientists better understand the damage to satellites that these particles can cause. The second experiment will contain an ionic chamber that will let scientists measure the total dose of radiation to which people or equipment could be exposed during space flight. Radiation affects chip performance, especially memory, said physics undergraduate Marius Trusculescu of the University of Bucharest. It can cause data to be lost, underscored his classmate, Claudiu Stirbei.

The third experiment tethers two satellites together to study their dynamics and test math models, said Irina Stefanescu, a doctoral candidate in aerospace engineering at Politehnica University of Bucharest. Applications of tethered satellites include launching spacecraft in formation, deploying a conducting tether to measure electricity from the ionosphere and generating the spinning motion necessary to toss satellites into lower or higher orbits, said Stanford Consulting Professor Belgacem Jaroux of the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department.

The students are at Stanford to learn as much as they can about CubeSat standards, power supplies and solar panels, said their faculty adviser, Mirel Vasiliu, a research scientist in electronics at Politehnica University of Bucharest. They hope to launch their satellites in 2007.

"To build, launch and manage a complete satellite mission is an excellent challenge for young people and an impetus to continue to build needed careers based on science and technology," Marius-Ioan Piso, president and chief executive officer of ROSA, wrote in an e-mail interview. Building professional-level micro-satellites prepares students to contribute to an important emerging market. "Partnership and cooperation are also a relevant effect--the resulting diversity produces progress. Any data on the universe and the Earth environment might become useful. The capacity of the space systems is still far from the needs. We need them not only for development but also to monitor the planet Earth and humankind's stability and security."

Satellite cameras could help Romanians monitor environmental conditions like the floods that ravaged their country this summer, the students said. And nurturing technology abroad may help here at home too. An international charter recently commandeered satellites worldwide to mitigate the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Said Piso: "The radar and optical satellites of the European Space Agency, together with other national agencies, are bringing useful information to help the disaster recovery."