UB students build space junk observation satellites for Air Force and NASA

Dozens of students are helping to design and build the satellites, which are expected to launch into space in 2017 and 2018. Photo credit: Douglas Levere.

Agencies plan to monitor thousands of manmade objects that orbit Earth and threaten spacecraft

Release Date: July 21, 2015

“Space debris is a growing problem that threatens not only the International Space Station and other human-occupied spacecraft, but also satellites that we rely upon every day for weather prediction, navigation, communications and other important matters.”
John Crassidis, CUBRC Professor in Space Situational Awareness
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – First NASA, now the Air Force.

The aerial branch of the United States Armed Forces has, like the space agency, ordered a space debris-tracking satellite from the University at Buffalo.

The satellites, which students are designing and building under the supervision of engineering faculty, are roughly the size of a briefcase. Inside are powerful cameras, sensors and other gizmos that will monitor thousands of manmade objects, also known as space junk, that orbit Earth and threaten spacecraft.

“Space debris is a growing problem that threatens not only the International Space Station and other human-occupied spacecraft, but also satellites that we rely upon for weather prediction, navigation, communications and other important matters,” said John Crassidis, PhD, CUBRC Professor in Space Situational Awareness in UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who is overseeing the project.

The space junk problem

NASA estimates more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball are orbiting Earth at speeds up to 17,500 mph. It is unlikely those objects will enter Earth’s atmosphere, but the odds that one will strike and damage functioning satellites and other spacecraft are increasing, according to the National Research Council.

Because there is no cost-effective way to remove debris, researchers want to better track objects to avoid future collisions.

Most debris is in low-Earth orbit, a field 100 to 1,200 miles from Earth’s surface. Because of the objects relative proximity, researchers often can determine their shape and mass by using telescopes and radar.

The same tracking ability isn’t available in high-Earth orbit, a field more than 22,000 miles from Earth’s surface that is home to satellites used to monitor the weather, make cellular phone calls and more.

How the satellite works

Inside Bell Hall on UB’s North Campus, a few dozen students are working on the first satellite, dubbed GLADOS (short for Glint Analyzing Data Observation Satellite).

Once in low-Earth orbit, the instruments inside GLADOS will measure the sun’s reflection off space debris in high-Earth orbit. Researchers will use that data to determine the size, shape, spin and path the objects follow while in orbit. With that knowledge, they can move satellites out of harm’s way.

With 80 percent of the work done on GLADOS, most students have gained valuable hands-on experience in a cutting-edge field of aerospace engineering.

“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 junior and Tennessee native serving as the project’s chief scientist.

Growth of the microsatellite industry

GLADOS is a microsatellite, so-called because it’s much smaller than traditional satellites.

The Department of Defense, NASA and other organizations are pivoting toward microsatellites because new technology is allowing scientists to pack more power and features into smaller packages. Microsatellites are also relatively inexpensive and carry less risk; for example, losing a $1 million microsatellite during a launch failure doesn’t sting as much as losing a $100 million traditional satellite.

SpaceWorks Enterprises, a Georgia-based aerospace engineering consulting firm, expects the number of microsatellites launched globally will grow from nearly 100 in 2013 to more than 400 in 2020. The growth is due, in part, to the Air Force’s University Nanosat Program and NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, both of which partner with universities to develop and build microsatellites.

UB began submitting proposals to the Air Force program in 2010. It wasn’t until earlier this year, however, that the Air Force green-lighted the project by providing UB with $110,000 to build GLADOS. The go-ahead comes after NASA in 2014 selected UB to build a space junk tracking satellite for CubeSat.

UB anticipates the Air Force will launch GLADOS in 2017. NASA is expected to follow in 2018.

In addition to support from the Air Force and NASA, the students have received engineering and testing guidance from Moog Inc. of East Aurora, N.Y.

Media Contact Information

Cory Nealon
Director of News Content
Engineering, Computer Science
Tel: 716-645-4614
cmnealon@buffalo.edu
Twitter: @UBengineering