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Looking to the sky: UB Nanosat Lab's SORA begins adventure

Rachel Suitor (Chief Engineer of SORA), Andrew Dianetti (Student Principal Investigator) and Seamus Lombardo (Program Manager of GLADOS) collaborate in UB’s Nanosatellite Lab. Working on projects for countless hours alongside fellow classmates has helped lab members form a strong bond.

A new project has launched at UB that  will extend the reach of the university’s Nanosatellite Lab and help protect important space infrastructure, such as communication and GPS satellites, from orbital debris.

Spectrometry Observation for Reflectivity Analysis (SORA) is a new nanosatellite being developed by students in the UB Nanosat Lab under the advisement of John Crassidis, CUBRC Professor in Space Situational Awareness and Director of the Center for Multisource Information Fusion, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

The 12U cubesat builds on the Glint Analyzing Data Observation Satellite (GLADOS), which has been in development in the Nanosat Lab for about five years.

Thousands of pieces of space debris, also known as space junk, orbit the Earth and threaten to collide with and damage satellites. Like GLADOS, SORA will use light data to characterize the size, shape and material properties of space debris. SORA, however, will have the capability to use diffused  light, which is a much more common source than the glint lighting used by GLADOS.

“It’s an intense project that takes up a lot  of our time, but it’s very rewarding. To be able to say that something we designed and built will be in space in a couple of years is pretty cool,” said Seamus Lombardo, an aerospace engineering major and project manager for GLADOS.

GLADOS is a 6U cubesat that will be launched into low earth orbit to gather light data on space debris.

UB’s premier space program

The UB Nanosat Lab is structured similarly to NASA, with divisions in software, integration and testing, and power systems. Most of the funding for the UB Nanosat Lab comes from the Air Force Research Lab, through the University Nanosat Program (UNP), which supports the development of space science research at U.S. universities.

Five other universities are in UNP-8 with GLADOS while nine universities are part of UNP-9 with SORA.

Many students see the lab as an opportunity to get hands-on experience and learn skills that they wouldn’t typically learn until they get to graduate school. Lab members have gone on to intern at SpaceX, NASA, Air Force Research Lab (AFRL), Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Moog.

Maura Sutherland, a sophomore double majoring in aerospace and mechanical engineering, greatly attributes her experience as a Nanosat Lab member to helping her obtain an internship at SpaceX.

“What you learn in the lab is so fundamental to what you are doing in the real world. The skills that I learned, I used at my internship. I would say my experience is what really got me that position,” Sutherland said.

Building satellites from concept to launch

Working on SORA and GLADOS has provided these aspiring engineers with a hands-on experience that is rare at many universities.

“We are learning an incredibly broad range of engineering-related skills, such as soldering, wiring, working in the clean room—the list goes on,” said Mara Boardman, a senior and Tennessee native serving as the project’s chief engineer for GLADOS.

Boardman added that participation grew from about 60 students to almost 150 during the fall semester.

But, the lab isn’t just about building a satellite; it’s about building a community. Working on GLADOS for countless hours alongside fellow classmates has helped team members form a strong bond. Helping each other with homework assignments, tutoring one another or hanging out outside of the lab has become the norm among lab mates.

“The most important prerequisite isn’t knowledge; it’s motivation. If you come and start showing up, people will teach you how to do things so you can figure out how to do them by yourself. It’s basically just showing us that you want to learn,” Lombardo said.

With their passion and motivation intact, the students find themselves inching closer  to their main goal. GLADOS is scheduled to  go to the Air Force by mid-2017, in hopes that after a year of functional testing, it will be ready to launch by mid-2018. The students will continue to be responsible for it after launch, observing it from their own mission control ground station at UB.

“Even though we are handing it to the Air Force, the project essentially doesn’t end. Our de-orbit requirement is 25 years, so if everything goes according to plan, the satellite will be up there and functioning for a very long time,” Lombardo said.

Mara Boardman, Chief Engineer of GLADOS, works in the lab’s new digs in Hochstetter Hall. With more than 100 students now involved in the projects, the ever-expanding lab relocated after outgrowing its former space in Bell Hall.

Leaving their mark in space

“The work we do is really going to play a big part in the future of spaceflight, because tracking all this debris is going to be important for putting up future satellites, and for efforts to go to Mars and other planets,” Sutherland said.

As for the future of the UB Nanosatellite Lab, Lombardo hopes it will grow into a community that will make space more accessible.

“I see the lab growing into something where we have multiple satellites, can pay certain members of our staff and maybe even do in-house testing of certain things  for people in industry,” he said. “We want to market ourselves as an inexpensive way to get spacecraft built.”

To learn more about the UB Nanosatellite Lab, visit http://ubnl.space.

Editor’s Note: This story includes content from Laura Hernandez (UB Now) and Jenna Dombroski (EMERGE, UB’s student magazine), and was updated for Buffalo Engineer by Sarah D’Iorio.