KALAMAZOO — The U.S. Air Force could rely on satellites designed by Western Michigan University students to diagnose issues with high-tech propulsion systems in space.
For students in the Western Aerospace Launch Initiative, the project offers a firsthand glimpse into a career as an aerospace engineer, working on projects destined for use outside the earth’s atmosphere.
The initiative allows students and faculty to design and test a nanosatellite — classified as a satellite weighing less than 22 pounds — as part of the U.S. Air Force’s University Nanosatellite Program.
While the hands-on experience is important, the program also gives students a leg up when it comes to landing a job after graduation, either with a large aerospace OEM or a local supplier, said Jennifer Hudson, an associate professor at WMU who helps lead the program.
“The students that get involved in this program tend to be in very high demand for jobs because they’ve had not only engineering classwork, but they’ve also been in a lab with the equipment, testing it and presenting their designs and things like that,” Hudson said.
During the annual Small Satellite Conference at Utah State University last year, several large aerospace manufacturers approached Hudson and her colleague Kristina Lemmer, an associate professor at WMU who also helps lead the Aerospace Launch Initiative, to inquire about students.
“They know these students are getting well-rounded exposure from the program and they want these types of students who have been working on these satellites working for their companies,” Lemmer said. “These are the big aerospace companies like Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Boeing.”
Primarily, the students engage in systems engineering, which incorporates a variety of different disciplines including electrical and aerospace engineering, to ensure a product’s systems work in harmony with one another.
The Launch Initiative is currently finishing the first year of its two-year program with the Air Force, and students in the program have completed the initial design of the nanosatellite. They now are working to test the various subsystems, including power and communications, for use in space. The students recently launched some subsystems into earth’s upper atmosphere with weather balloons to test the functionality of the design.
While the students’ work focuses on the hands-on design of the nanosatellite, the program also forces them to work through what’s considered the daily grind of the space industry — namely reports, mission plans and other paperwork.
“One of the issues we have is designing a spacecraft isn’t all fun and hands on,” Lemmer said. “There’s a lot of paperwork, meeting requirements, establishing mission requirements and recording everything. It’s vital skills that students need for the workforce when they get out there. But they think, ‘We’re going to build a satellite, it’s going to be cool,’ and then they get laden down with having to fill out a requirements matrix.”
However, while students may not get excited about the nitty gritty of mission statements and other paperwork, their holistic experience can prove indispensable for potential employers, said Gavin Brown, executive director of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association (MAMA).
“A lot of aerospace manufacturers might be able to make a product for 50 percent less than the current manufacturer, but the paperwork gobbles up all their time and profit, so they don’t (pursue it),” Brown said. “It’s a matter of understanding the complexity of the validation and certification processes because you can’t afford a single failure.”
Although graduates of Western’s Aerospace Launch Initiative can translate their skills into a variety of manufacturing settings, it’s likely that some could find work in the rapidly growing nanosatellite industry.
Governments, large aerospace corporations and startups have embraced nanosatellite technology, which is expected to become a $2.25 billion market by 2020, nearly three times the approximately $890 million the sector encompasses now, according to a report by Dallas-based Markets and Markets.
Brown of MAMA notes the U.S. Department of Defense likely will serve as one of the primary acquirers of nanosatellite technology in the future.
“(They’re) going to be much more space-oriented,” he said. “The use of satellites is going to increase, both in the transmission of data and communications. Those that are participating in satellite programs like (Western) are going to be on the leading edge of technology.”
Universities and governments around the world have launched 564 nanosatellites as of the end of November, according to data collected by the online database nanosats.eu. Of those nanosatellites launched, 210 are currently in orbit and operational.
For its part, the U.S. Air Force has offered its University Nanosatellite Program since 1999 as a way to grow the small satellite industry and encourage education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
Thus far, roughly 5,000 students and 36 universities have participated in the Air Force’s program, said Sarah Means, a civilian contractor who serves as a program coordinator for the University Nanosatellite Program.
“We’ve turned into the go-to for these (aerospace) companies to find new graduates because they know the training we provide is unique,” Means said. “There are no other educational satellite programs in existence that are sponsored by the government that are as well structured as ours.”
Outside of the government, companies have also taken to nanosatellites as part of a much larger privatization of the space industry. For example, Google in 2014 acquired Skybox Imaging, a California-based nanosatellite company, to increase the capabilities of its mapping technology, according to reports. Google has since renamed the company Terra Bella.
The nanosatellite Western’s Aerospace Launch Initiative is developing will focus on diagnosing electric propulsion systems on other larger satellites.
Electric propulsion systems superheat xenon gas until it forms a plasma, a type of matter that contains a significant electrical charge. After being heated, the plasma sheds its electric charge, which the system then directs through a combination of electrical and magnetic fields, resulting in propulsion.
WMU aims to adapt and incorporate sensors into its nanosatellite that can analyze the exhaust gas produced through the electric propulsion process to diagnose problems on the larger satellites.
“If you spend $100 million on a satellite and the thruster isn’t operating the way it is expected to, you might want to send up a very cheap $100,000 satellite to investigate what’s going on,” Lemmer said. “What we’re trying to do is to establish a base to test that investigation technology.”
The Air Force’s University Nanosatellite program provides WMU with $110,000 over the course of two years to fund the project. If the students successfully build a working prototype with fully functioning subsystems, they’ll be eligible for another two-year grant of $110,000.
While the funding provides much needed capital to complete the project, WMU’s Launch Initiative also is seeking additional funding to purchase components and equipment, Lemmer said.
The professors predict that while a handful of students may splinter off from the group and form their own startup nanosatellite company or move on to work at large aerospace OEMs, many intend to stay in the area and extend their experience to local manufacturers.
“A lot of our students are interested in working at local industries,” Hudson said.