ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Last summer, the University of New Mexico launched a weather balloon that reached the edge of Earth. This year, UNM will go beyond that – to outer space, via a satellite built by students.
NASA in August will launch UNM’s first-ever satellite, a 4-inch cube called Trailblazer that uses technology never sent into space before.
It will be UNM’s first foray outside of Earth, which, if successful, could help bring in more funding and federal grants for the university, said Craig Kief, deputy director of Configurable Space Microsystems Innovations & Applications Center, or COSMIAC.
COSMIAC is a UNM research center focused on space electronics.
The satellite project began in 2011.
“There was a desire to kick start aerospace and space engineering at UNM, and this just seemed like the perfect way to do it,” Kief said. The cost: $40,000 for all parts, with funding from an Air Force Research Laboratory grant. NASA will not charge to launch the satellite from one of its rockets.
Trailblazer will gather radiation levels from space that will be analyzed by mechanical and electrical engineering students.
About 25 students helped design and build the satellite over the last two years, Kief said.
Matthew McCullough, a senior in electrical engineering, helped set up the two antennas atop COSMIAC’S offices, near the airport, that will pick up Trailblazer’s signals. He started working on the project as an intern a little more than a year ago and said the hands-on work has been a great learning experience.
“I’d say the most important stuff I’ve learned has come from being here, not in the classroom,” McCullough said.
Chief research engineer Brian Zufelt oversaw the project. “This entire satellite is entirely new technology,” Zufelt said.
For example, Trailblazer is the first satellite that fully relies on “space plug-and-play architecture,” meaning every part of the satellite is integrated with its central computer system. In the same way a personal computer can read a mouse plugged into it, Trailblazer’s system is able to read all of its components and, therefore, has the ability to control those parts.
The satellite is also the first to have electronic parts printed from a 3D printer, Zufelt said. 3D printing is a process in which a solid object of any shape can be created from a digital model. The University of Texas at El Paso created the 3D-printed parts for the satellite.
“We wanted to prove that it’s a viable option for space flight,” Zufelt said.
So far, Trailblazer has passed rigorous tests with flying colors.
Zufelt and company spent last week testing the satellite’s ability to adapt to extreme temperatures and a vacuum effect in a giant chamber at Kirtland Air Force Base.
The satellite has since been sealed and will soon be mailed to Wallops, Va., where NASA will launch it. It will be in a dispenser that fits two other cube satellites and will be attached to a Minotaur rocket. If the rocket makes it into space – there’s a 10 percent chance it won’t – then the dispenser will pop open and release Trailblazer.
The satellite will orbit at about 280 miles above Earth. It will pass over five or six times a day at a speed of 5 miles per second for about a year before gravity gets the best of it and it disintegrates, Kief said.
If the mission is successful, UNM could prove itself as a leading research institution, Kief said. It could also be the first university to prove that 3D printed technology can survive outer space.
“You can be damn sure we feel that pressure,” Kief said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal