Pathway to a prototype

Interdisciplinary student team develops 1U CubeSat control system testbed for NASA

A group of undergraduate students successfully designed and built a prototype of an Arduino-based control algorithm testbed for a cube satellite and presented the results to NASA. 

By Sarah D'Iorio

Published November 13, 2017

“I helped with coding. I helped with soldering. I helped with the structure. One part of it isn’t just one person’s problem. We all have to put in time and effort to see it through.”
Nicole Cappa, BS, Mechanical Engineering, '17

For five UB undergraduate engineering students, the decision to sign up to participate in an engineering intramural project was a relatively easy one. After all, it’s not every day aspiring engineers get the opportunity to work on a project proposed by NASA.

The hard part? Working to design, build and improve a cube satellite testbed that could be used to test algorithms that would ultimately allow a satellite in space to detect light.

But the interdisciplinary student team — Nicole Cappa (Mechanical Engineering), Rohan Kuriakose (Electrical Engineering), Chengyu Jiang (Aerospace Engineering), Haolin Xie (Mechanical Engineering), and Rei Yoshinaga (Mechanical Engineering) — wasn’t looking for a typical experience. 

“It’s a real world engineering problem. It’s not something you have in class,” said Kuriakose. “We were given a few goals and a few constraints by NASA. Other than that, it was: this is a problem, come up with a solution.”

Engineering intramurals are defined as problem-based extracurricular engineering activities that provide an authentic learning experience for students. They are a component of Experiential Learning Programs in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which are designed to help students develop professionalism and a practical perspective by facilitating real world engineering experiences.

In this engineering intramural, NASA asked the students to build a CubeSat testbed that could be used in a research setting to test different Arduino-based control algorithms. While algorithm testing on CubeSats is typically done with computer simulation, the method doesn’t provide a very accurate depiction of what will happen to the satellite once it’s launched into space.

“CubeSats are inherently fragile and expensive things. They don’t work all that well in gravity because they’re not made to work in gravity,” said Cappa. “So this is a physical system where you can do that testing in gravity.”

CubeSat Project Team: (from left) Rohan Kuriakose, Chengyu Jiang, Nicole Cappa, Haolin Xie, and Rei Yoshinaga.

According to the team, the challenge in developing the test bed was to mimic the conditions of space as much as possible. Furthermore, they were tasked with developing an algorithm that would enable the CubeSat to detect and track sources of light. This capability would allow the satellite to take photos in space.

“With a satellite, if you are trying to take a picture you always want your light source to be behind where you are taking the picture from,” said Kuriakose.

After the first prototype didn’t turn out quite as expected (created from aluminum parts the students found at Home Depot), they went back to the drawing board. “It was bad. It didn’t work at all,” said Kuriakose.

For the subsequent prototypes, the team utilized a wide variety of engineering skills and facilities within the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The mechanical structure was completely machined and 3D printed using the Engineering Machine Shop and the Digital Manufacturing Lab. Many of the circuits were custom designed. The students, none of which had a computer science background, also learned and implemented some coding to lay the foundation for the CubeSat’s control system.

“I helped with coding. I helped with soldering. I helped with the structure. One part of it isn’t just one person’s problem. We all have to put in time and effort to see it through,” said Cappa.

Although they could have ended the project after the first prototype, the team persevered and continued to improve on their design. They spent the next 18 months furthering the development of the system with funding from UB’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (CURCA). They also continued their work as a part of an interdisciplinary senior design project, which is another component of SEAS Experiential Learning. 

The students also connected with Andrew Dianetti, a PhD student in aerospace engineering who has experience in spacecraft attitude determination and control. They reached out to get some assistance in furthering advance their hardware’s control system.

“The prototype used in the team’s control system development presents a unique and intriguing method in which to create a physical demonstration of spacecraft attitude control, which is typically rather difficult on the ground,” said Dianetti.

The resulting modular construction of the CubeSat — a 20 by 20 by 20 centimeter structure — is one that is capable of adapting to different sensors and sensor systems as needed and has a control system capable of implementing controllable one-dimensional motion.

One feature the team is most proud of is the integration of magnets on either side of the axis so that the CubeSat in the middle is entirely levitating. The students had to make sure the structure was completely balanced, which they did by hand with great care.

“I think what’s amazing, especially for the other team members, is that they have been working on this for more than two years,” said Yoshinaga, who is now a graduate student pursuing her PhD in mechanical engineering at UB. “I don’t think many undergrad students have that opportunity or try to work on something for two years. I think they’ve learned a lot.”

The team has also had multiple opportunities to present their progress to NASA.

“We had a meeting with the director of NASA Goddard and we presented our project to him and he seemed extremely excited about it,” said Kuriakose. “We talked to different people working at NASA as well. It’s opened a lot of doors for us.”

While many of the team members are now preparing to attend graduate school or start their full-time first job, they continue to see the possibilities for their prototype.

“There’s always more to do on this project,” said Cappa. “This is only a one unit CubeSat. You can get them up to three units. There’s still more work to be done with the control system. The structure can always be more streamlined.”

SEAS Director of Experiential Learning Andrew Olewnik said that the CubeSat project is representative of the types of engagement that the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences aims to inspire through Experiential Learning Programs. In this case, what began as a 10-week exploratory project set the foundation for significant learning over a two-year period. 

"I think it provided about as authentic an engineering experience as you will find in an academic setting. The team was required to develop and apply new skills, seek and apply knowledge, iterate, troubleshoot, communicate with one another and external stakeholders, and deal with frustrations and setbacks," he said. "It gave them direct exposure to the difficulty of realizing an engineered system. Along the way, they worked hard, did some interesting work and demonstrated their passion and ability to solve engineering problems."