Earth’s Pull Ends Two-Year Orbit
Front Page / Dec. 3, 2015 9:00am EST
Vermont Technical College’s tiny cube-shaped satellite plunged into the Pacific Ocean on November 21, two years and two days after it was sprung into orbit by a 70-foot, four-stage, Minotaur 1 rocket that had blasted off from NASA’s Wallops Island facility in Virginia.
According to Vermont Tech physics professor Carl Brandon, the college’s “CubeSat” was the only one of the 12 universitybuilt mini-satellites launched that day that stayed in orbit for two years before being pulled into the earth’s gravitational field. In fact, he said, eight of the 12 “never worked at all,” and the others died soon thereafter.
In a happy coincidence, the Cube- Sat’s re-entry occurred on the same day that Vermont Tech was approved to offer a master’s degree program in software engineering, Brandon noted.
The CubeSat that just completed its career had been designed, built, and programmed by a small team at Vermont Tech that included Brandon, Prof. Peter Chapin, and their students, and former students. Funding came from a variety of grants that Brandon had applied for, including a significant one from NASA.
Just 10 centimeters on each side, the satellite was outfitted with a miniature camera and with two navigation systems that were being tested in hopes of a second CubeSat, some time in the future that could go to the moon.
One of Brandon’s former students, Bill Mc- Grath of LEDdynamics, had manned the satellite’s ground station since the November 2013 launch, tracking its path and downloading photographs. McGrath reported to Brandon that the satellite’s last message, 23 hours before re-entry, was “Bye, VTC.”
To the Moon with ADA
That little satellite may be history, but Vermont Tech’s space dreams are hardly over.
Brandon and a small team at Ver- mont Tech are now collaborating with Prof. Ben Malphrus at Morehead State College in Kentucky on a larger and far more elaborate satellite— one they hope will orbit the moon.
The Morehead team is building the six-unit CubeSat (about 4x8x12-inches with fold-out photovoltaic panels), which is being called the Lunar IceCube.
The goal is to have the IceCube spend six months orbiting the moon, collecting and relaying data.
The Vermont Tech crew, at Malphrus’ request, will do the programming— if Brandon can secure the necessary grant funding to continue this major project.
Brandon is pretty confident on that front, given the success of the first Vermont Tech CubeSat, and his track record in grant writing: “I’ve applied 17 times and got 27 grants,” he said.
His proposed grant would fund for three years, hours for a team of four Vermont Tech professors, four undergrads, and three graduate students in the new masters program.
Brandon said the team will use the same programming language— SPARK/Ada—used for the first CubeSat, as well as “the SPARK Toolset, which analyzes the code and proves its correctness.”
“That we were so successful using SPARK/Ada in our first Cube- Sat, when everyone else on the launch failed, is the reason we were asked to do the flight software on Lunar IceCube,” he said.
(According to Brandon, SPARK/ Ada is a subset of the Ada language, which was named for Lord Byron’s only legitimate daughter. She is considered to be the first computer programmer, and December 10 is the 200th anniversary of her birth, he said.)
The clock is already ticking. Prof. Malphrus, who has received a $16-million NASA grant to build the satellite, has been given a July 2018 launch date.
Brandon is enthused about the project—as well as about the new master’s program at the college. Software engineers, he noted, receive top salaries, due the demand for their services.
According to Brandon, the Vermont Tech undergraduate student who did most of the programming for the first CubeSat easily secured a job after graduation—beating out 20 other applicants, many of whom had significant experience.