Designed and built in part by students at
"The software is more sophisticated than any satellite I've ever worked on, even the most expensive ones," said retired
The satellite is tiny, just 5-by-5-by-15 centimeters, or about the size of a TV remote control. Inside is a tiny radio and a sensor that reads the earth's magnetic field.
The satellite passes over
That may not seem like much, but the fact that it was built in a matter of months by undergraduate students using off-the-shelf electronics, all for a few thousand dollars, is revolutionary, said Professor
"We can talk to it and it does things ... that's the kind of capability that you usually have on a
Now that the students know how to do such a thing, she said, it opens up the possibility of launching tiny satellites carrying instruments that would generate useful scientific data, such as X-ray or gamma ray sensors searching for distant stars and other celestial objects, a personal area of research for Cominsky.
The steadily decreasing size and price of electronics opens up orbital sciences to small-scale researchers the way technology opened up radio astronomy and other ground-based research in the 1980s, she said.
Still, it's no small thing to get a satellite into orbit. Most of all, of course, you need a rocket, which SSU does not have. The chance came up when Professor
That Italian vehicle blasted off atop a Russian rocket on
The tiny satellite itself was a co-production of Cominsky's SSU students and Twiggs' Morehouse students. The students in
The assembled satellite was tested back at Morehouse, which is home to an advanced aerospace lab, built in 2009, a facility SSU cannot match.
The control center for the new satellite, however, is here in
"We've got an
The satellite uses a computer programming language known as Logo, apparently the first vehicle in orbit to do so. The language uses simple designs and commands but is capable of formulating complex programs, Jernigan said. Traditional satellites use rigid control systems that give workers on the ground a limited range of commands to send up, he said; using Logo could allow ground controllers to reprogram satellites to meet changing conditions or even perform entirely new missions.
"I did not know how much I had to learn, and how much I did learn" when the project began in May, he said.
Next up, Cominsky and Jernigan are hoping to line up students for a much more ambitious project: launching a small X-ray observatory into orbit. The X-rays can help scientists locate black holes, distant stars, and even untangle the mystery of "dark matter," the mysterious stuff that appears to pervade our universe but has so far eluded direct observation.
That unit would cost just a few thousand dollars to build, plus about
Jernigan said a swarm of such small X-ray-detecting satellites could one day give us an unprecedented view of the universe at a fraction of the cost of traditional satellites.
Both Jernigan and Cominsky, both of whom have long careers in helping design bulky traditional scientific satellites, say they are excited by possibilities raised by this new generation of small, cheap satellites.
"Most of the satellites I have worked on are expensive --
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