VTC Team Creating a Satellite That Will Orbit the Moon

Communities / Jul. 9, 2015 11:52am EDT

By Marya Merriam

Physics professor Carl Brandon and Vermont Technical College students are shooting for the moon—literally.

Starting this summer, they will be working to build a satellite set to launch in November, 2018 with the plan to orbit the moon for six months.

The project was envisioned by Ben Malphrus of the Morehead State University, Ky., with the hopes of measuring the presence on the moon of volatile gasses and water vapor. After being awarded $16 million from NASA, Malphrus shared the good news with Brandon while they were both attending a conference at CalPoly.

Brandon, who has taught physics at VTC for 38 years, offered his lab and team to work on the satellite’s software. His offer had credibility because his team has already sent one satellite into space. Their CubeSat, which launched into orbit 19 months ago to test a navigation system, is still sending back photos as of last week.

VTC’s CubeSat was the longest lasting in its launch group of more than a dozen NASA-funded research satellites, built by various colleges to orbit the earth.

Given the increased travel distance and research task of the new satellite (called the Lunar IceCube), its size has also increase to 4x8x12 inches. That may seem small, but it’s six times the original CubeSat’s size.

Using grant money, Brandon, Peter Chapin and two students in VTC’s software engineering program are already working on the IceCube full time. Once classes start in the fall, Brandon will use some of the NASA money to hire a third student worker.

He said that beyond technical software skills, he makes sure to emphasize to his students that in these research projects, “much of [the work] is writing.” For example, the team produced a full 1000 pages of documents before the first CubeSat was delivered to the Air Force for mounting on a rocket.

New Components

Though the emphasis on writing is consistent from project to project, there are a couple of new technical components inside the Lunar IceCube.

In order to measure the gases and vapor, the satellite will carry a compact infrared spectrometer. To get this spectrometer into Lunar orbit will require a new ion drive utilizing solid iodine, eventually sublimated into a gas.

The drive engine can last up to 20,000 hours as it uses energy from interactions between electrical fields and the iodine ions.

This longer-lasting drive, weighing about 2.5 kilograms, will maneuver the IceCube into orbital position. That solo voyage will take six to eight months after the satellite is released from NASA’s new launch vehicle.

That rocket will also carry 11 to 14 other six-unit CubeSats while simultaneously testing a new capsule for possible astronaut use.

Although the team plans to have the satellite ready for the February 2018 deadline, Brandon says the launch vehicle is “a new rocket, so we’re expecting it will probably get delayed.”

After maneuvering into what he calls a “highly elliptical orbit,” in which the IceCube will revolve around the moon at a distance between 60 and 3000 miles from the surface, the satellite will spend six months measuring, collecting, and relaying data.

Then, by the current design, it will crash into the moon, so that the satellite is out of the way of other research devices. If they have enough fuel left, though, Brandon says he hopes to send the IceCube towards Mars. Even the moon is not a big enough goal for his team.

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