Cal Poly satellite program gets $5 million from NASA

Cal Poly’s mini-satellite program just got a $5 million boost from NASA.

The university’s CubeSat program has existed for 10 years, during which students have played a key role in helping to launch 32 mini-satellites into orbit as part of six missions.

Aeronautics engineering professor Jordi Puig-Suari said the NASA funding will facilitate more launches in the United States and help build working relations with the federal space agency.

“In the past, we’ve participated in launches in Russia, and it can be a very intensive process to meet the requirements of the U.S. State Department,” Puig-Suari said. “Working with NASA will make it much easier to conduct more launches in the U.S.”

Puig-Suari worked with Stanford University to develop the initial protocol for the CubeSat standard.

The small size and design of the deployer, which includes springs that eject satellites from the capsules while in space, are now used by dozens of universities and organizations, Puig-Suari said.

The satellites and capsules are attached to rockets that are launched for a variety of missions, including global imaging and atmospheric studies — and the student projects eject into space as a separate unit.

The mini-satellites can be designed to capture space images, but primarily they are used for educational purposes and to allow the students to experiment with aerospace parts to make sure they can withstand the severe vibration of rockets.

“It’s basically a high-tech jack-in-the-box,” Puig-Suari said.

Cal Poly students are preparing for a Feb. 23 launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County as part of NASA’s Glory mission to conduct climate research.

The Cal Poly team has built the capsule that will contain and then eject into space three small satellites, which were built by universities in Montana, Colorado and Kentucky.

Students from various majors, including aeronautics, software and electrical engineering, participate in Cal Poly’s program. The collaborative nature of the work helps them, they say.

“I think a lot of us would only hang out with people in our majors,” said Brian Castello, a master’s student in aeronautics. “This project really forces you to interact with the team and people from a variety of majors.”

Puig-Suari said the funding NASA has made available to Cal Poly is part of an effort by the agency to encourage educational space projects.

About 15 to 20 students from Cal Poly work on the capsule-building project each year, while about the same number develop satellites for missions.

Some participate for extracurricular experience, and others get senior project credit.

“This is kind of like a full-time job, and some of us spend 40 hours per week here working,” said Ryan Nugent, a Cal Poly aerospace engineering student. “It’s a lot of responsibility because we have to make sure our project isn’t going to mess up a multimillion-dollar mission.”