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Engineering students designing, building "micro" satellites

STANFORD -- A group of two dozen engineering students are devoting a lot of time and effort to put Stanford into orbit in a new way.

Over the years a number of Stanford researchers have been involved in the design and operation of dozens of different kinds of space vehicles. But, beginning this year, the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department has initiated a new program that involves students in designing, constructing and controlling small, simple and inexpensive "microsatellites" that are launched into orbit.

Last Thursday, April 21, the students involved in this program showed a mock-up of their first satellite design to a visiting Russian official, Yuri Plotnikov, professor of flight mechanics and control design at the Moscow Aviation Institute.

If the project goes as planned, a year from now the 2-foot-wide hexagonal satellite will hitch a ride on top of a Delta rocket along with a commercial satellite. Once it goes into orbit, the satellite will begin beaming back digital pictures of Earth and broadcasting its position and status over ham radio channels with a synthesized voice.

"The program has two major objectives," said Robert Twiggs, a visiting professor brought to Stanford from Weber State University in Utah to jump-start the new small satellite development laboratory. "First is to give graduate students in aero-astro and other departments practical, hands-on experience in designing and building something that can be launched into space in only a year on a very limited budget. Second is to provide faculty, students, space experimenters and industry with an opportunity to do inexpensive space experiments."

Plotnikov's interest stems from the fact that the Moscow Aviation Institute is a professional school with 15,000 students devoted to aerospace design. "The name is historical. Actually, we design anything that flies," he said. The institute currently has a joint satellite program with Utah State University. When asked whether something similar is likely with Stanford, he shrugs and replies, "It's all a matter of funding."

The students have nicknamed their design the Stanford (or Satellite) Quick Research Testbed, or SQUIRT. They hope that this could become a de facto standard for microsatellites, which are a growing phenomenon worldwide. Students at the University of Umea in Kirna, Sweden, are working on a parallel design. So far, about a dozen student-designed microsatellites have been built and launched.

The watchwords for these satellites are simple and inexpensive. So the Stanford design uses powerful magnets to keep the satellite aligned perpendicular to the Earth's magnetic field, rather than employing complicated gyros and thrusters to control its position.

"Usually, the reason for a satellite is its payload. But we are doing things backward. Our purpose is to get the experience of designing the satellite, so what it carries is of secondary importance. However, we've tried to come up with a payload that will be interesting and worthwhile," said Christopher Kitts, a graduate student in mechanical engineering.

The payload the students have agreed upon is a digital camera, voice synthesizer and global positioning satellite system receiver. The GPS receiver will allow student controllers to determine the satellite's position. Simple photocells will determine when the camera is pointing toward the Earth. That will allow the Logitech digital camera to snap images of different parts of the globe that will be transmitted by radio to interested ham radio operators.

According to Kitts, participants hope that the pictures and synthesized messages from the satellite can be used in elementary schools, middle schools and high schools to help interest students in science.



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