Cornell team's satellite earns trip to space via NASA

Monday, July 3, 2017

Source: Ithaca Journal

While many engineering students across the country get to work on projects designed for space travel, not many get the opportunity to launch those projects into space.

The Cislunar Explorers – a student group at Cornell University – won the final ground competition in NASA’s Cube Quest Challenge last month and have earned a chance to launch their device into space in 2019.

Cornell’s team along with groups from the University of Colorado and Fluid & Reason LLC of Tampa, Fla., were selected by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate to have their spacecraft launched onboard the Space Launch System, which is sending an unmanned Orion spacecraft into deep space in 2019.

“When this mission is successful, it will have demonstrated that we can reach lunar orbit with water as the propellant,” said Mason Peck, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering who leads the student group. “At the same time, I think we’ve already been successful in another way, and that is through bringing in a number of students for this extraordinary experience.

“Not many students get to launch their senior project, so this is a great way for students to learn experientially.”

A CubeSat is a type of miniaturized satellite for space research, and often are built using commercial off-the-shelf components for the electronics and structure. Cornell’s CubeSat is powered by electrolysis propulsion, which breaks down water into burnable hydrogen and oxygen. Peck’s group had been working on electrolysis propulsion for about four years when the Cube Quest Challenge was announced in 2014.

NASA announced the semifinal winners of its Cube Quest Challenge after completion of the last of four ground tournaments. The Cornell team, which is also led by doctoral student Kyle Doyle, won $20,000 for taking first in Ground Tournament 4. The Cornell team finished third in GT-1, first in GT-2 and second in GT-3, and won a total of $100,000.

“Not only do (the students) learn through coursework at Cornell University but they also get exposure to difficult projects that you can’t achieve simply by taking courses,” Peck said. “And I think that kind of experience is a success of its own.”

The Cislunar Explorers now must complete NASA’s phased safety review process. The team is working on phase 2 of the review, for the design of the spacecraft. Phase 3 will look at the completed CubeSat and determine if it’s safe to fly. The students built a radio ground station on top of Rhodes Hall to track their CubeSat.

The Cube Quest Challenge features a prize purse of $5 million, which is NASA’s largest ever. The final phase of the challenge includes the Lunar Derby, in which the Cislunar Explorers will compete, and the Deep Space Derby. If successful, Cornell will be the first university to build a spacecraft that reached lunar orbit.

In the Lunar Derby, teams must achieve a lunar orbit; prizes will be awarded for orbiting the moon, highest communication rate and total data communicated, and surviving the longest. In the Deep Space Derby, teams must demonstrate communications capabilities from a range of at least 2.5 million miles from Earth – more than 10 times the distance to the moon.

“Opportunities to launch to the moon are very rare, let alone for CubeSats,” Doyle told Cornell. “There’s never been one before.”

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