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Tiny satellite, big challenge: CubeSat team aims high

January 30, 2017

Once every 16 days, a LandSat satellite flies over Carthage as it continues its nonstop polar orbit of Earth. With a billion-dollar budget and a team of hundreds manning its progress, the LandSat program sends 700 multispectral images of Earth back to Earth every day.

If, for just one of those images, LandSat could get a close-up picture of campus — specifically what’s happening in the physics labs of the new Science Center — its engineers might grow a twinge nervous that a team of undergraduates is out to steal their jobs.

Carthage recently received a $277,000 grant from NASA to design, build, and launch a CubeSat, a tiny satellite that will attempt to gather the same data as the LandSat satellite 7,000 times its size.

“I want to take a billion-dollar satellite that provides enormous amounts of relevant landform ecology data and information about climatological processes, and show that you can reduce that technology into something the size of a loaf of bread, and at a tiny fraction of the cost,” says physics professor Kevin Crosby, who is leading the Carthage CubeSat team. Prof. Crosby is dean of the Division of Natural and Social Sciences, and director of the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium.

It is a bold, and difficult, project.

“It would be crazy if this worked out,” Prof. Crosby says. “It is extremely audacious.

“We’re going to fail, there’s no question. The trick for us right now is to be as alert as we can be to the possibilities for failure, so that we can design and build against them.”

Members of the Carthage CubeSat team work on a model of their satellite.

For his team, Prof. Crosby recruited 17 Carthage students, selecting most of them from last year’s freshman class. “I thought I would work mostly with freshmen because it is a long life cycle to go from design through watching the launch.”

He opted to have the team tackle a significant science question, rather than build a typical first-attempt CubeSat, which he describes as a “Sputnik-era beeping box” (it orbits the Earth but provides little scientific benefit).

The Carthage satellite will gather multispectral images of Earth — specifically the world’s forest canopy — and send them back to campus, where the team will analyze the reflectants of light coming off the forests and use the data to compare carbon content in old-growth forests to harvested forests. The project is named “CaNOP” (pronounced “canopy”), which stands for Canopy Near-IR Observing Project.

A team of experts will advise the team. Experts on the advisory panel include Carthage geography professor Joy Mast, Carthage computer science professor Perry Kivolowitz, and Isa (Fritz) Peterson ’10, now a space architect with SSL.

“CubeSats provide the entire life cycle experience for space mission design and construction, from concept design, engineering, and reviews, to launch and post-launch operations management,” Prof. Crosby says. “That’s a huge experience that, because of the incredible growth of the space sciences industry, is very valuable to employers.”

“The students are going to spend a ton of time pulling their hair out … but they will learn to be better critical thinkers and problem solvers. They will get the discipline of knowing to be suspicious of their instincts, and to confirm in every way possible their assumptions. They will learn that the best way to mitigate against failure is to not pretend that you know things that you don’t know all the way to the bottom.

“Ultimately, they will be more confident in their ability to do things that matter in the world.”

CubeSat Team Members
The following students spent summer 2016 working on CaNOP:

  • Jedidiah Barnes ’19
  • Brianna Faltersack ’19
  • Daniel Gerloff ’18
  • Laura Hammock ’19
  • Michael Hernandez ’18
  • Michael Huff ’19
  • Brendan Krull ’16
  • Kevin LeCaptain ’16
  • Ashley Marquette ’17
  • Jeremiah Munson ’19
  • Michael Omohundro ’17
  • Ariana Raya ’19
  • Tessa Rundle ’16
  • Thomas Shannon ’19
  • Benjamin Tillema ’18
  • Nycole Wenner ’19
  • Joseph Wonsil ’19
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