CubeSat

Ask and you shall receive.

It appears that many of you really liked to hear about the CubeSat project that I talked about in @Cody’s recent thread, so I thought I would dedicate an entire thread to discuss it more thoroughly and hopefully inspire some of you. To start, this project was and is a group effort, and I definitely am not taking credit for all the work that has been done on this, however, I have had some major contributions to the club. Feel free to ask any questions, and I will do my best to answer. And for those that did not know, I am currently a senior in the mechanical engineering program at Washington State University in Pullman, WA.

A brief overview of CubeSats and my CubeSat club

A CubeSat is a miniaturized satellite for space research. There are classifications to designate the size of CubeSat and the most standard size being a 1U which is approximately 10x10x10cm. With the help of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, universities and high schools have the opportunity to fly on upcoming launches. In addition, you must have a launch provider to deploy the CubeSat from space, in our case, that is Nanoracks. If you really wanted to and had the money, you can go out and buy the components for a CubeSat and have it be launched into space, however, our club wanted to design and build our own from scratch so we could get the engineering experience and learn along the way. This is what started our club in 2016. Our club is compromised of several teams that work together including Attitude, Communications, Computing Systems, Electrical, Environmental Control, Payload, and Structures. Progress has been slow since the start, but we are closing in on our first launch scheduled (tentatively) for May 1st, 2021 on the SpaceX Falcon 9 CRS-23 launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Our first CubeSat mission is called CougSat-1 and is a 1U CubeSat. It is a 6061 Aluminum body (anodized black) that is covered by several solar panels on the outside. The CubeSat also includes a camera and is equipped with a magnetorquer used for attitude control in space. Our CubeSat’s main objective is part of our payload, which is designed to test plant germination in microgravity, which has not been done outside of the International Space Station before.

My contributions

Now moving onto my contribution to the club (in-depth this time). The large projects that I have worked on as a member of the Structures team include:

  • I created some of the engineering drawings (using GD&T standards) from the already-completed CubeSat CAD using SolidWorks. These were needed for our university manufacturing shops to machine the aluminum satellite panels to the correct dimensions and tolerances.
  • I used an Instron tensile tester to “rip” apart the bolts and nuts that hold the satellite together to get a reading on what force causes them to fail and how they would fail. This wasn’t very exciting as the nuts just stripped and slowly pulled away from the bolts (no satisfying snaps). For this test I had to water jet some thick metal brackets to hold the bolts in place.
  • I created custom made portable testing containers from acrylic using a laser cutter for the computing systems team to test and troubleshoot electrical components that would eventually go inside the CubeSat. I designed the containers to have locking lids using only the acrylic panels and it worked great.
  • I worked on random vibration simulations in SolidWorks. The point of the simulations (and eventual real tests) is to make sure that the CubeSat will survive the launch into space.
  • I got a Flashforge Guider II 3D printer donated to our club and set that up and created a training program for club members to use it since we had a lot of 3D printing projects and not enough 3D printer options on campus.
  • I worked on the communication antenna and rotator that will communicate with the satellite while in orbit from Earth. This project was abandoned by some team members so my friend and I took it up and designed and 3D printed an antenna rotator for it, but things changed and now it needs a complete redesign as one of the antennas is no longer needed (to be completed later this year).
  • I designed a circular 3-axis Helmholtz coil for our club that allows us to calibrate the navigation magnetometers carried by the CubeSat. We already had one built for our first mission, however, it wasn’t really made to last very long and it only supports a 1U CubeSat, and our next mission will be a 3U CubeSat.
  • I designed on SolidWorks a 3U preliminary structural design that utilizes brass rails to hold the internal components together and 3D printed it.

In addition to all of this, I have helped others on smaller projects and done a LOT of 3D printing for the club. I still have another year left which will be finishing the upgraded Helmholtz coil and the antenna rotator.

Take-aways

What I have taken away from this experience – I joined this club in my sophomore year which I regret. As soon as you get to college, get involved in a club related to your major, do not wait. Even if you are a freshman and you don’t think that you fit in or know how to help, stick with it, and always ask questions and seek to learn outside of class. Also, when you are touring colleges, find out about the kind of clubs that they have available and if they don’t have any that you are interested in, you can always start your own clubs. Just please, please move on from robotics after HS, there are bigger and better things out there. Additionally, I have found myself doing better in classes because I have already been exposed to certain topics that I learned from the club. This has been and continues to be a great experience for me in college, and I feel very proud that soon something that I have worked on and touched will be on the international space station and be launched into space. I will certainly never forget this experience, and it also helps with adding this experience to your resume. Companies are always interested to hear about CubeSat projects.

Thanks for reading my story and I hope that for those of you thinking about college that this was inspirational to you. No matter the plan or degree you take there will be something cool for you to explore. If you have any questions, let me know, I would be glad to answer.

Render of CougSat-1
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Click the dropdown to see the rest of the pictures

Communication Antennas and Rotator (3D printer in background)
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Unfinished Antenna Rotator (Not the final model - will be completely redesigned)
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CougsSat-2 Prototype Structure (3D Printed)
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Helmholtz Coil Design
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Electrical Component Testing Container with snap-lid (empty)
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A picture of the bare CubeSat structure after machining
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The most current picture I could find of our CubeSat (assembly required)
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If I find any more pictures I’ll send them.

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