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Small satellite could have big impact

USC’s second CubeSat, Aeneas was built by the Space Engineering Research Center at USC’s Information Sciences Institute. (Photo/Courtesy of the USC Space Engineering Research Center)

The Space Engineering Research Center (SERC) at USC launched on Sept. 13 the first CubeSat — a miniature satellite built in cubic compartments — with the ability to deploy a parabolic dish and track a point on the surface of the Earth.

Dubbed Aeneas, the satellite is the first CubeSat with this tracking capability, which it will use in an attempt to track shipping containers on the open ocean. While satellites are generally operated pointed toward a fixed location (the Earth, the sun, a star, etc.), Aeneas will employ three-axis stabilization control to track the moving containers, demonstrating that global satellite tracking can be performed by nanosatellites.

Part of a widespread effort to build nanosatellites at a relatively low cost, CubeSats represent a cost-effective way to explore new satellite architectures and address niche applications, as they can easily piggyback onto other space launches. What used to require a $6 million spacecraft and a $20 million launch could theoretically be done for a fraction of the price, provided the mission is not too complex.

“This is yet another testament to the great nanosatellite work being done at the USC Information Sciences Institute [ISI] and the USC Viterbi [School of Engineering]’s astronautical engineering department,” said Yannis C. Yortsos, dean of USC Viterbi. “It continues a strong tradition of USC engineering involvement in space. We couldn’t be more pleased to be part of the Aeneas mission.”

Aeneas was launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, Calif.

Built at ISI by a rotating team of students and staff members, Aeneas marks two firsts for cube satellites: It will be both the first CubeSat in history to ground track (or track a point on the surface of the Earth) and the first to deploy a half-meter parabolic dish, the largest size deployable from a nanosatellite. Nearly three years in the making, the dish is a high-gain antenna to be deployed from a structure not much larger than a loaf of bread.

Aeneas’ main payload is a 1-watt Wi-Fi-like transceiver that will be used to track the cargo containers and will aid the Department of Homeland Security in its Secure Transit Corridors program. A secondary payload that was designed and built for the flight but did not make it at the last minute was a space-qualification demonstration of the MAESTRO processor — the next generation of space computer — developed by the Boeing Co. and funded by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). A 49-core processor, the chip had been set for the launch to test its capability of working in orbit.

As SERC’s Associate Director Tim Barrett explained, “You can’t fly something in space unless it’s flown in space.”

The MAESTRO processor is now scheduled to fly on an upcoming launch.

Work on Aeneas began in the fall of 2009, but it was briefly interrupted two years ago when SERC was approved to design, build and launch Caerus, USC’s first nanosatellite subsystem. The brief interruption proved fruitful, however, enabling the team to utilize space-tested equipment built for the earlier project on Aeneas.

Following its launch, Aeneas will be monitored by SERC students and employees from ground stations on USC’s University Park and ISI campuses, as well as a mobile ground station in Barrett’s backyard. The mission is expected to be completed in three months, though the satellite itself could remain in orbit for several years.

While the basic satellite bus — the main body of the satellite — was provided by the NRO Colony CubeSat program, funding for Aeneas enhancements, flight software, payloads, staff and students was provided by Congressional STEM funding, the California Space Grant Consortium, Northrop Grumman Corp., Boeing, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Lord Foundation, the Rose Hills Foundation, internal ISI funding and USC’s Office of the Provost.

SERC was established in 2006 by staff members in ISI’s space group and the faculty of USC’s Department of Astronautical Engineering, including SERC Director Joseph Kunc, a professor at USC Viterbi. Created as a result of discussions with local space industry and national labs, SERC seeks to develop sustainable and achievable low-cost, rapid design-to-orbit space systems.

“Most industry professionals only see a few space flights in their entire career,” Barrett said. “The fact that we’ve had two in only a few years is huge.”

Added Kunc: “An educational hands-on program where undergraduates from freshmen to seniors can directly participate in the designing, building and testing of fully operational space hardware and software is indeed a very unique accomplishment.”

Small satellite could have big impact

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