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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, February 15, 2002

UH to launch little do-it-yourself sputnik

 •  Graphic: how the satellite works
 •  Video: how the satellite is launched (Real Player plug-in required)

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

Part of the UH team that is building a small satellite scheduled for launch in 2003 stands behind engineering student and project manager Aaron Ohta. Directly behind him, left to right, are students Darren Goshi, Michael Tamamoto and Tim Fujishige. At rear, left to right, are Randy Cortez, Greg Reyes and Jason Akagi and faculty members Vinod Malhotra and Wayne Shiroma.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

. . .

How to help

To contribute to the fund-raising effort, send checks to CubeSat Account, c/o UH Foundation, P.O. Box 11270, Honolulu, HI 96828-0270. Make checks payable to UHF/CubeSat.

Mission Control never looked like this: college backpacks heaped on lab tables; only two computers cranked up; engineers in shorts and slippers.

But this is it, the brain center for a scheduled satellite launch in April 2003 by 51 University of Hawai'i engineering students, some of them just out of high school.

UH is one of about a dozen American universities working toward putting small satellites aboard a Russian missile that next year will carry them to orbits 200 miles or more above the Earth.

Unlike most of the schools taking part in the cutting-edge program, UH is entrusting its project exclusively to undergraduate students. The program is expected to further enhance the reputation of the UH College of Engineering and help attract and keep the best young minds.

"It's a challenge, but we think we can do it," said project director Aaron Ohta, a 21-year-old junior. "And there's the possibility to create a network, and later the possibility of a mission to the moon to fly around it and take pictures. And we also want to do a joint mission to Mars."

But those challenges will come later, said project co-director Michael Tamamoto, 20, a junior. "You have to send up a first mission and you learn from that. It's the first time we've done something like this. These missions would build upon each other."

If the countdown stays on schedule, by December the 4-inch-square aluminum "CubeSat" will be crammed with high-tech communications gear, magnets, digital photo equipment, and temperature and X-ray sensors, and ready for space.

"We'll send the cube to a private contractor (One Stop Satellite Solutions) in Utah, who's going to shake it and bake it and make sure everything is stable," said project adviser Wayne Shiroma, UH associate professor of electrical engineering and a former Hughes Aircraft satellite engineer.

"Then they'll ship it off to Russia and put it on a refurbished ICBM missile and launch it."

But before that can happen, the students must raise $100,000 to finance the project, including $50,000 for launch fees, $15,000 for parts and $35,000 for summer stipends. They already have $10,000 from the Hawai'i Space Grant Consortium, whose director, Jeff Taylor, calls it "the most ambitious project" he has seen.

"Students learn by doing, and they get a great opportunity to bring a project to completion," said Taylor, who helped get things going by encouraging UH involvement in the international University Space Systems Symposium in Kona last year, where the idea was launched.

The little satellite will be powered by a system of solar panels attached to the outside surface; will take pictures of both the sun and the Earth; and will measure X-rays and temperature in that region of space, something largely unknown, Ohta said. Such information is crucial to any space mission, as X-rays damage electronic equipment.

Magnets fastened inside will keep it stable and orient it to Earth's magnetic field.

The major payload is the camera. But what helps make the project possible is the 5-gigahertz transmitter/receiver (transceiver) designed and built a year ago by UH graduate Kendall Ching, 2001 winner of the Alton B. Zerby award and named the nation's best electrical engineering student. The students will modify Ching's transceiver to 400 megahertz to transmit data back to Earth.

"This is pretty groundbreaking, especially for undergraduates," said Ching, who now works on fiber-optics projects for On Semi-Conductor in Phoenix, Ariz. "Only a couple of colleges have done this. But Dr. Shiroma focuses on undergraduates, giving them hands-on research experience. Instead of just reading textbooks you're actually able to see the application."

The fledgling "small satellite" business was the brainchild of Stanford University professor Bob Twiggs, who was buying a gift for a grandchild back in 1998 when he realized that a Beanie Baby box would be the perfect size to carry a high-tech electronics payload into space. One Stop Satellite Solutions of Ogden, Utah, has run with that idea and is building deployment platforms for these mini satellites — at affordable prices. (It has also donated the $4,000 cube being used at UH.)

"You don't have to have a million dollars to get into space," said Michael Wood, program manager for the Utah satellite company. "We're talking an SUV price tag."

Compared to the multimillions it takes to launch in the United States, each cube will go aloft for $100,000 aboard a Russian rocket decommissioned because of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty.

The project has generated so much excitement at UH that students are eagerly participating. Senior Greg Reyes, 27, who came back to college after working for a few years for a food chain, said the project is helping him find a more fulfilling future. Senior Randy Cortez, 23, knows that his participation analyzing data-collection systems will also give him life skills. Tim Fujishige, a 20-year-old junior, said he is fascinated by the opportunity "to apply all the things I've learned."

With 51 students now involved as part of class projects, they've divided into six teams, each with its own goal. As leader of the data and command software team, it's Jason Akagi's problem to worry about communicating with the satellite every day. It will make as many as five 15-minute passes over the Islands daily at 20,000 mph, and remain in orbit up to a year.

"Every day we'll tell the satellite what its tasks are going to be," said Akagi, a 20-year-old junior. But it will only transmit during overhead passes, said electrical engineering graduate chairman Vinod Malhotra, one of seven advisers.

The computer team will be the "brain," the sensor team the "eyes" and "skin," the communications team the "ears" and "voice"; the science team will give it purpose; the power team will handle solar panels; the mechanical team will decide the final structure, modifying and packing the cube.

While some colleges buy the components for the payload, the UH team will build its own.

Once the satellite is up, Shiroma and Malhotra envision involving elementary school students too. "They could assist in controlling the satellite, operating buttons to transmit voices and receive data," said Malhotra.

At the very least, said Shiroma, they could shoot their voices into space, and have them come back. Like echoes.

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8013.