Santa Clara University


Robotics Lab Goes Global

Robotics Lab Goes Global

The students in the Robotics Lab are at it again. This time they are off to El Salvador and the Marshall Islands to build ground stations to track a pair of upcoming NASA satellite missions.

“We’re going global!” exclaims Mike Rasay, SCU Ph.D. candidate and NASA’s Ground Segment Lead. Rasay heads the team of masters’ students Jose Acain, Paul Mahacek, Giovanni Minelli, and Ph.D. students Ignacio Mas and John Shepard, who are responsible for the installations. “In the past, we set up systems in Alaska, Hawaii, and California” he said, “but this is our first time going out of the country. Both stations will be used for the operation of the NanoSail-D and PreSat missions.”

The NanoSail-D satellite will deploy a 9-meter square foil sail designed to propel the satellite through space due to solar pressure created by the impact of particles from the Sun. Because of the low orbit for this launch, the sail will act like a parachute, causing the satellite’s orbit to lose energy due to drag from the Earth’s upper atmosphere. This will test the use of a drag sail to speed up the de-orbiting process of spacecraft at the end of their missions. “This is a collaborative effort between NASA/Ames and Marshall Space Flight Center,” said Rasay, “Marshall is responsible for the design of the sail, and Ames is providing the bus flight support -system that was used for GeneSat and has since been improved upon.”

The PreSat spacecraft is a technology test for key subsystems that will fly later this summer on the PharmaSat spacecraft, which the Robotics Lab students will also control. PharmaSat will carry a biological payload to test the efficacy of antifungal drugs on yeast in a microgravity environment.

To prepare for the installations, the team spent the past few months surveying locations, spec’ing parts, researching shipping and customs regulations, and assembling and disassembling the antenna twice to make sure the fabrication was correct. Their antenna was tested by monitoring GeneSat-1 which has been in flight for a year and a half. Following the NanoSail-D and PreSat missions, the team will disassemble the Marshall Islands station and ship it back to SCU. Most of the El Salvador ground station will remain on the roof of the engineering building at Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), and will be used for new collaborations between SCU and UCA. Aside from tracking satellites, El Salvador’s ground station will be used to train UCA students in developing and operating radio communication stations, and it will serve as a communication hub during natural disasters.

“Proving the ability to set up ground stations anywhere in the world for low-cost, six-month mission implementation is a new direction for NASA,” said Rasay. “It was a quick decision to build these two ground stations and our team jumped into action. I’m proud of our guys—they really stepped up.”

For more information on SCU’s Robotics Systems Laboratory: