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NMSU engineers developing first-ever miniaturized space telescope system

Engineering researchers from New Mexico State University are part of a collaborative effort to develop a miniaturized distributed space telescope anticipated to be launched in 2024 to provide high-resolution imaging of the sun’s corona.

Solar events can interact with the magnetic systems of Earth and can change the radiation environment through which our spacecraft travel. Close to Earth, space weather can interfere with satellite electronics, communications and GPS signals and even – when extreme – utility grids. 

“It really affects all of humankind and the Earth. So, this space weather study and observation is very important for all of us,” said Assistant Professor Hyeongjun Park from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

This is the third year of the four-year $4.4 million project funded by the National Science Foundation. The collaboration includes 10 university teams and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s Heliophysics Science Division.

“The Virtual Super-resolution Optics with Reconfigurable Swarms (VISORS) mission supports the advancement of using constellations of CubeSats for space weather through designing, building and operating two shoebox-sized satellites that together form an ultraviolet telescope for observing the sun,” Park said.

CubeSats are low-weight, low-cost satellites that can be deployed in constellations of 10s-100s. They can be equipped with specialized instruments for studying the space environment.

One satellite will house the lens system and have the added functionality of shading unwanted solar radiation from entering the camera. The other satellite will house the detector and fly directly behind the lens spacecraft with a 40-meter separation during observations.

Stanford University is working on the 40-meter separation position alignment. NMSU is working on the orientation alignment to enable this precision formation by developing an algorithm to simulate and analyze the forces and torques that will affect the satellites’ orientations.

“In space, we have to align the two spacecraft precisely and at some point, we have to align attitude, that is the orientation of the spacecraft, in a telescope formation,” explained Park. “Using traditional engineering technology, it would be difficult to build this 40-meter structure in space, so for this project we just remove the middle part of the structure and we have the lens and detector. That 40-meter distance is necessary to capture the sun’s ultraviolet wavelengths. To put two spacecraft in a line with a separation of 40 meters is very difficult and really challenging.”

Once launched, the two spacecraft will orbit Earth and move to the precise formation, position and orientation to take images.

The team expects the spacecraft to finish the attitude alignment in 30 seconds after the position alignment and the observation phase to be around 10 minutes.

After each orbit, the satellites will pass over ground stations and download the images. The ground station will send the command for the next observation and the satellites will autonomously maneuver to the next position and orientation and capture more images.

The project is now at the stage of manufacturing and integration. The 10 universities are sending their finished algorithms or parts to Georgia Tech to integrate all of the pieces. They will conduct vibration tests for satellites before delivering them for launch.

Park, director of Robotics, Unmanned Vehicles, and Intelligent systems CONtrol Lab (RUVICON Lab), has worked with five graduate students and three undergraduate students on this project.

“One graduate student is now working for a company at NASA White Sands and she can really apply her experience and knowledge from this project. She’s now working as a satellite systems engineer, so to see her performance and career path is amazing.”

Aerospace engineering master’s candidate Micah Schumann is doing an internship for Lockheed Martin, also at NASA White Sands, where his work is to operate satellites. This project is very related to his current internship.

“I’d like to do something in R&D. I would like to branch out into guidance navigation and control systems, but that encompasses many things so that could be rockets to cars and beyond,” Schumann said.

Undergraduate Nathan Troutman is pursuing dual bachelors’ degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering.

“This is the first project I’ve worked on. I’m definitely gaining a lot of practical knowledge about the application of orbital dynamics and physical systems of these satellites,” Troutman said. “Both my parents and myself have been massively big into science fiction and so it’s always inspired my imagination. I definitely want to be at the forefront of space exploration and the new Space Age.”

NMSU’s small satellite program began in 2001. The VISORS project was inspired from other projects with NMSU’s Nanosat Laboratory. Park and Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Head Steven Stochaj are co-directors of the laboratory.

“Students are really eager to do some hands-on experience and do some real work on space engineering. As a faculty member, I must try to provide more space research opportunities and projects to pursue. In New Mexico, there are more companies and more development for space,” Park said. “I think our students will have more research opportunities and job opportunities for working in the space industry.”