UCF to Launch Minisatellite to Study Ways to Keep Electronics Safe in Space

UCF to Launch Minisatellite to Study Ways to Keep Electronics Safe in Space

NASA and commercial space companies someday may get some critical information about building safer spacecraft, thanks to the work of UCF physics Assistant Professor Adrienne Dove and her team of students.

Dove and about a dozen graduate and undergraduate students have built SurfSat, a cube satellite scheduled to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket from California on Saturday. Once in orbit, it will begin collecting data that should eventually help manufacturers build spacecraft that have appropriate surfaces to keep highly sensitive electronics safe during flight.

The satellite, the size of a loaf of bread, carries an experiment that will gather information about how different surfaces of a spacecraft react to electrons and ions encountered in space.

Often these materials produce electrical discharges. These unexpected charges can disrupt and sometimes destroy sensitive electronic equipment onboard spacecraft. The result: untimely delays or interruptions to service and thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars-worth of damage.

“Most spacecraft are made of aluminum which is a conductor. But a lot of the time, spacecraft surfaces have paints that are especially designed for their thermal or optical properties,” Dove said from the UCF CubeSat lab at the Florida Space Institute. “These paints sometimes have unexpected interactions with ions and electrons in space. A good analogy is how sometimes you get shocked when you touch something. That shock is the electric current looking for grounding. When that happens with some of these materials you can damage surfaces and fry the sensitive equipment within the spacecraft.”

But if manufacturers knew what types of materials would still provide the thermal and optical properties they need without causing the electron buildup, they could avoid the damage. That’s where Dove and her team come in.

The Journey

UCF and FSI have developed a reputation for building flight experiments that have flown aboard airplanes, suborbital spacecraft and on the International Space Station. CubeSats are a relatively new venture at UCF and provide additional way to explore science and technology. CubeSats began as way to conduct experiments more readily than waiting for more infrequent space missions. Now, more and more commercial companies are getting into the business carrying experiments as secondary payloads.

This team built SurfSat from scratch, a first for UCF. Students from engineering and physics worked hand-in-hand to build the electronics, avionics, and all the mechanical components that will be used for many UCF CubeSats. The campus amateur radio club is involved in building the ground station for communicating with the satellites in orbit.

“CubeSats are very cool,” Dove said. “They are a good testing ground for technology that can be used later on other platforms on a bigger scale. They launch more frequently giving you an opportunity to test ideas, even some high-risk ideas, but in a small format.”

Student Benefits

The projects are also good for students because they can get real-world, or in this case out-of-this-world, experience and see it come to completion within two to three years instead of having to wait perhaps a decade before seeing results of an experiment they contributed to, she said.

For aerospace engineering major John Boehmer, the project was an opportunity to design and fabricate hardware that will go into space. For the aspiring flight-engineer astronaut, that’s a good step toward his dream of flying in space.

“Nothing else would be as fulfilling as working to expand humanity’s progress into space,” he said. “The only way to learn the subtleties of real-world application is to actually build it. Just because it works in the computer-design software does not necessarily mean it will work in the real world.”

Then you learn how to respond and make it work, he said.

Anna Metke, front, ,and Trisha Joseph work on SurfSat.

For Anna Metke, who is pursuing bachelor degrees in business and physics, the opportunity to work with her mentor was too good to pass up. She assembled parts of the satellite and will be at UCF’s ground station waiting for the CubeSat to communicate shortly after establishing orbit.

Doctoral candidate James “Jay” Phillips, will watch the launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Even though he already works at Kennedy Space Center, he is just as excited about the launch as the undergraduate students.

“This is the first satellite I have ever worked on,” Phillips said. “So having the opportunity to design circuit boards and write software for a system being sent into orbit was unique. Totally excited.”

Faculty Lessons

There’s also learning involved for Dove, a junior faculty member at UCF.

“It’s been a good experience for me as a younger faculty member,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot about working on a project I’m leading and about working with NASA. I will be able to apply all I’ve learned here as I go after bigger grants and missions.”

Dove has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri and a doctoral degree from the University of Colorado. She’s been teaching and conducting research at UCF since 2012. She has published articles and presented at dozens of conferences around the world.

Co-investigators on the project include UCF Physics Professor Joshua Colwell and Dawn Trout from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Services Program.

“We are counting down the days,” Dove said. “This never gets old.”