A team of mechanical engineering students designed and created a satellite that won a NASA-sponsored competition, and as a result, will launch into space in about two years. But the journey to the great beyond, once complete, would have taken nearly a decade to realize.
Pradeep Shinde, a doctoral student at the College of Engineering and Computing, has been reaching for the stars since 2009. Back then, while working toward his master’s degree at FIU, Shinde was part of the first team of students who created the first generation of a CubeSat – a small communication satellite for space research – to compete in the FUNSAT Design Competition. FUNSAT, which stands for Florida University SATellite, challenges students to design an actual system in the first year, and complete flight model construction in the second year as part of the contest.
The competition is sponsored by the Florida Space Consortium, a NASA-sponsored program administered by the University of Central Florida and the Florida Space Institute. Its main goals are to promote an interdisciplinary project for systems engineering; support a test-bed for advanced technologies; and promote career development for Florida students in the aerospace field.
As satellites go, “space” for them is limited in actual outer space. The winner of the FUNSAT contest earns a spot in space to launch their CubeSat, making the prize all the more sought-after.
The original satellite Shinde collaborated on could only communicate with the ground station. “It was for technology demonstration purposes,” he said. Over the years, various students in the Near Earth Explorers Student Club (NEE-SAT) worked on multiple versions of the project, but in 2014, Shinde, now a doctoral student, wanted to again compete at FUNSAT, and win.
It wasn’t meant to be. While contest officials liked the proposal, Shinde and team didn’t qualify. “We were also concerned we’d be unable to finish it, so we decided, let’s prove our concept, and the next year, we’d get a better chance.”
This time, the team, which consists of 14 members of the NEE-SAT Club – a combination of faculty, two graduate students and several undergraduate students – would get a little help from the College of Engineering and Computing Dean’s Office, which donated $4,000 to the project.
“Design competitions are an incredibly important experience for students. We all learn, not by watching or hearing, but by doing. We supported this project because we recognized the hard work that the students were putting into it – that they had a diverse and enthusiastic team, and well thought-out plan to complete the project and be competitive,” said Anthony J. McGoron, associate dean for academic affairs at the College of Engineering and Computing.
Funds were used to expand the satellite’s capabilities to be more research specific. Students gave it a name, originally called ROARSat, after Roary the mascot, eventually it became NEE-SAT, after the club that developed it. Manufacturing students teamed with robotics and electrical students to incorporate components such as cameras, sensors, solar panels and a CPU. In total, about 18 students from different disciplines participated in building the system. Unlike the very first satellite Shinde worked on, this version could collect research data, monitor weather, and even predict weather cycles.
“Our resources are extremely limited, and we wish that we had more funds to support more groups to participate in national and international design competitions. It is very gratifying to see that the groups that we can support are successful and bring home the prize,” McGoron said.
And that is exactly what the team did this spring. They went up against six universities across Florida, and won second place. The prize comes with $3,000 to build out the satellite, and eventually launch into space.
Ibrahim N. Tansel, chair of the Mechanical and Materials Engineering Department and one of the advisors on this project, along with Professor Sabri Tosunoglu, explained that since the late 1950s, humans have successfully watched the earth from space with the help of satellites, Now, FIU, gets to play a crucial role in the next generation through the development of a CubeSat that will provide answers to the needs of South Florida, and beyond.
NEE-SAT will collect data on sea level rise in Florida, and look at vegetation detection. It will also enable research in the areas of cloud and weather prediction – how the weather is changing and how it affects rainfall, and also study the earth’s radiation budget – how much energy is used by earth, and how much is emitted by earth back to space. This information will help understand the impact on seasons, and why they are becoming more extreme.
After the competition, members of the design team traveled to Nevada to test the satellite in ideal atmospheric conditions. Again, it didn’t go as planned. When the system accidentally flew into a military base, the satellite, and its data, was confiscated. So, it’s back to the drawing board to reassemble the system, which since has been returned to the students.
Once the NEE-SAT is rebuilt, the team will go into flight model development in preparation for launch into space in approximately two years.
Along the way, Shinde hopes to garner support from industry partners, particularly those in aerospace. Already, FIU alumnus Christian Rodriguez ’10 – a systems analyst for O3b, a global satellite service provider – is an industry advisor on the project.