By Jose Espinel
By JOSE ESPINEL
On September 15, approximately 30 students filed into Science Center Room 110 for the first meeting of the new Harvard Satellite Team. At the front of the room stood Maggie Wang (c/o ’21), Joseph Sanchez (c/o ’21), Amir Siraj (c/o ’21) and other members of the Harvard Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) who introduced the team’s ambitious purpose: the construction and launch of the University’s first undergraduate-built satellite.
The Satellite Team represents a new chapter in the history of space exploration as it marks the College’s entrance into the arena of CubeSat projects. CubeSats are miniature satellites of standardized dimensions— no larger than a shoebox— that are capable of carrying the full suite of power distribution, data handling, and communications systems one would expect to find on a traditional spacecraft.
CubeSat technology is the result of three decades of innovation spurred by an ever-more-competitive launch market and the unprecedented pace of electronics miniaturization that are democratizing access to space. As satellites have gone small, it also means they have gotten cheaper.
The relatively low cost of this new generation of spacecraft ($10-80k to build, and $30-300k to launch) has led to its rapid adoption by hobbyists, amateur scientists, universities, and other groups lacking access to vast corporate or government coffers. Established programs like NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) offer substantial funding to CubeSat projects that address contemporary questions of profound scientific consequence, like finding ways to build robotic equipment that enhances mobility and safety in microgravity environments which is especially relevant as NASA prepares a human return to the moon.
Within the next three years, the Harvard Satellite Team endeavors to reach its first major milestone: a CubeSat mission operating in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) that will align with NASA’s Strategic Plan. Other shorter-term objectives for the team include building and testing an independent ground station hosted on Harvard’s campus, and participating in a sounding rocket launch scheduled for June 2019.
The Harvard Satellite Team meets every Sunday from 3-4 PM in Science Center 110. The club accepts members from a variety of backgrounds and with no prior experience. Upon joining, members are split into one of the following six groups: Ground Station, Satellite Bus, Payload, Deployment/Recovery, Outreach, or Finance. What few realize is that the construction of a satellite is far more than a combination of high level physics, engineering, and computer science; as an undergraduate organization, managing finances, public relations, and general strategy and operations work make up a large part of a three year long endeavor. With a portion of the team graduating before the completion of the satellite, setting up the proper infrastructure to keep a long term project intact is essential, given the incredibly busy nature of Harvard Students.
CubeSat launches have been popular with major universities around the country, with several still active; universities around the world have taken advantage of CubeSat technology, leveraging international advances such that institutions ranging from IIT Kanpur, in India, (12 Oct 2011 Launch, Active) to Brown University (2014, Active) have been successful working with CubeSats. In fact, students from Merritt Island High School (MIHS) had the opportunity to work with CalPoly to successfully construct and launch a set of CubeSats, demonstrated the high research potential and lower accessibility level of the technology. The low cost of the technology has spurred innovation around the world, similar to its potential impact at Harvard University over the next few years.
Jose Espinel ([email protected]) is excited for the CubeSat launch at Harvard.