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SCU Engineering News

Student ops team monitors satellites for NASA


Last November, an Air Force rocket launched from Kodiak, Alaska, deploying four satellites that are part of the SCU Robotics Systems Laboratory (RSL) program, announced RSL Director, Christopher Kitts.

O/OREOS, is a NASA Ames Research Center biological sciences spacecraft that SCU students are controlling for one year. NanoSail-D2 is a NASA Marshall Space Flight Center test of solar sail technology which SCU students monitored for about two weeks. All of the flight computers on board the other two satellites, FASTRAC A and B (designed in collaboration with colleagues and students at UT Austin), were SCU designed. But it was the NanoSail-D satellite that really put the student team’s expertise to the test.

The mini-satellite, which was encapsulated inside another NASA satellite, was to be ejected on December 17. "Unfortunately," Kitts reports, "NanoSail did not properly eject from its host at that time, and the mission was feared to be lost. However, it was recently discovered that NanoSail somehow came free and was successfully ejected. SCU students, including Laura Bica, Naail Malick, Michael Neumann, and Anthony Young, rapidly reconfigured their mission control network and established successful contact with the spacecraft. The fact that the satellite finally worked its way out of the ejector and that we've now established communications with it is absolutely phenomenal!"

The NASA satellites are being controlled from SCU's Satellite Mission Control Room in the School of Engineering, using two parabolic dishes and a dual Yagi antenna suite. Automated receive-only communication stations installed across the country also relay satellite status data back to SCU mission control via the Internet.

"SCU is the only university in the country providing comprehensive mission control and distributed communications network services to NASA with a student operations team. Recently, the student team—freshmen to doctoral candidates—received special congratulations from NASA leaders, including Center Director Dr. Simon “Pete” Worden (Brig. Gen., USAF, ret.) for their problem-solving skills,” said Kitts. Students are trained and certified by enrolling for academic credit in a novel “Satellite Operations Laboratory” course which includes the control of a real NASA satellite as the lab exercise.

Funding for this work and the RSL’s engineering infrastructure comes from NASA and grants from SCU’s Technology Steering Committee and the National Science Foundation.

More about the RSL:

O/OREOS dashboard:

NanoSailD site: