What if firefighters battling blazes in the Southwest could call the Configurable Space Microsystems Innovations and Applications Center (COSMIAC) at UNM and ask them to build and launch a satellite to monitor the direction and progress of the fire 24 hours a day?  That’s a dream the researchers are COSMIAC would like to satisfy.

Deputy Director of COSMIAC Craig Kief says, “There should be a way for me to come in with some kind of push button tool flow and say – ok, they need optics.  They need power.  They need it to last for six months.  They need it to have this kind of radio so they can get the data back down.  And then we go back to the room of parts and we take one of these, one of these, one of these and just like that flat open CubeSat back there, they mount these parts all together, flip the box shut, do some hardware and a little testing.  Deliver it.”

Satellites that circle the globe today are mostly built one at a time, using parts and materials used especially designed for a specific job.  It takes decades to build and launch them because launch capability in the U.S. is handled by NASA and U.S. government requirements are extremely complex.  NASA is now beginning to assist educational institutions interested in launching satellites, and the U.S. Navy and Air Force are beginning to take a serious interest in small satellites but today space is still a carefully controlled and extremely expensive environment.

Students at COSMIAC may be the first to change that.  This summer students from UNM, New Mexico State University, and New Mexico Tech are building a four inch by four inch by four inch CubeSat.  They are using a small commercially designed electrical power system and instruments manufactured by various companies for terrestrial jobs.  This summer students from a number of universities are working at COSMIAC, figuring out how to place the instruments in the CubeSat, testing the components and preparing to deliver the satellite to NASA in December for a March 2012 launch.

If all goes well, it will be the first working satellite ever put into space by the University of New Mexico.  This CubeSat has a specific job to do.  It will fly through the South Atlantic Anomaly repeatedly in an attempt to measure exactly how much radiation bombards the CubeSat.  The South Atlantic Anomaly is an area just off the coast of Brazil about 15 kilometers above the Atlantic where the inner Van Allen radiation belt comes closest to the Earth’s surface.  It’s a cloud of energetic particles that are a serious threat to electronics.  When the Hubble Space Telescope flies through the anomaly, some of its sensitive sensors are turned off.  Laptops on the Space Shuttle have crashed when it travels through the Anomaly and the International Space Station has special shielding to guard its instruments when an orbit takes the station through the Anomaly.

 If everything works well, Trailblazer will be able to measure exactly how much radiation it takes to kill a small satellite.  That will be very valuable information needed by the satellites launched in Trailblazer’s wake.

There are many “firsts” packed into the Trailblazer effort.  One of them comes from the University of Texas El Paso where they have designed a new way to configure an important satellite component.  All satellites need a way to figure out where they are in space and what their position is relative to earth.  The component is called an inertial measurement unit. “Oftentimes on these CubeSats, we’ve got space, gaps and we’ve got to find a way to intelligently fill those gaps or mount things around them or do something, and what’s they said is ‘give us your gaps,’ Says Deputy Director of COSMIAC Craig Kief.  “So their circuit card looks like a comb because it’s got a back and it’s got fingers sticking out of it.”  Kief says that’s a huge difference from normal flat rectangular circuit cards, and it’s exactly what they need.  Another “first” is the way the students are using a unique U.S. Air Force satellite interface called Space Plug and Play Architecture (SPA).  SPA allows off the shelf parts to be easily configured in CubeSats.

Kief is hoping Trailblazer will give COSMIAC researchers and students answers to a couple of fundamental questions.  Can off-the-shelf, plug and play components work together in the temperature extremes and radioactive bombardment of space?    And just how much shielding does a CubeSat need to keep its circuits from frying?

The students working at COSMIAC are already members of the Phillips Scholars program at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory so they have at least some of the courses and technical expertise needed to work at this level on the leading edge of space research.  And if they succeed, they’ll have the ultimate “what I did on my summer vacation” story.

Media contact: Karen Wentworth (505) 277-5627; kwent2@unm.edu