A NASA-funded miniature satellite built by University of Colorado Boulder students to scrutinize solar flares erupting from the sun’s surface is the latest example of the university’s commitment to advancing aerospace technology and space science through strong partnerships with industry and government.
The $1 million Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer (MinXSS), led by CU-Boulder faculty in the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and the Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, recently was selected by NASA for launch in January 2015 from the International Space Station.
The tiny satellite, known as a CubeSat, was designed and built by CU-Boulder students, but it sports a unique onboard control system developed by Boulder-based Blue Canyon Technologies that provides unprecedented accuracy and precision for orienting the satellite toward the sun.
“In addition to educating the next-generation workforce of scientists and engineers, the MinXSS project exemplifies the mission of CU’s AeroSpace Ventures,” said Scott Palo, a professor of aerospace engineering sciences. “AeroSpace Ventures is a collaboration among aerospace-related departments, institutes, centers and their industry partners to create knowledge and develop new technologies specifically focusing on unmanned and autonomous aircraft, small satellites and Earth and space sensors.”
MinXSS will collect data to help scientists better understand the energy distribution of solar flare soft X-ray emissions and the impact that space weather events have on daily life here on Earth.
“Understanding space weather is important because of the large number of navigation and communications systems that can be impacted,” said Tom Woods, associate director of LASP and principal investigator of MinXSS. “For example, communication disruptions by a space weather event can force airlines to change routes around Earth’s poles and impact GPS navigation used for myriad applications such as underwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and precision planting of seeds by specialized tractors.”
While scientists know that energy is released when a solar flare goes off on the sun, they don’t have a good understanding of the spectra of the flares and, as a result, which layer of Earth’s atmosphere is most affected.
Once MinXSS is in space, its miniaturized instruments, about the size of a cell phone, will measure the energetic X-ray radiation from the sun. The information will help scientists determine where in the atmosphere the energy gets deposited and what communication frequencies could be impacted. Over the six- to 12-month duration of the mission, scientists expect there to be dozens, if not hundreds, of solar flares for MinXSS to study in detail.
Over the past three years, approximately 50 graduate and undergraduate students at CU-Boulder have designed and built the miniature satellite—about the size of a loaf of bread—which began as a graduate student project in the Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences. The students received guidance from university faculty and industry mentors and funding from the university, the National Science Foundation and NASA.
Blue Canyon Technologies (BCT), a company specializing in small spacecraft component design and development, is contributing its unique Attitude Determination and Control System. BCT President George Stafford said the strong partnership between BCT and CU-Boulder in developing CubeSat systems has been mutually beneficial.
“BCT has been fortunate to have the opportunity to work with highly experienced CU-Boulder faculty and staff at LASP and in the Aerospace Engineering Sciences Department,” Stafford said. “In addition, the CU-Boulder students on the MinXSS project are extremely talented and driven. The MinXSS project is using a BCT-developed product that provides unprecedented pointing performance capability for nano-sized spacecraft, and we’re pleased that we can support the university in this mission.”
The MinXSS CubeSat continues a robust tradition of CU-Boulder students designing and flying CubeSat missions, including the highly successful Colorado Student Space Weather Experiment, which launched in September 2012 and is still in operation today.
Doctoral student James Mason has logged more than 2,200 hours working on the MinXSS CubeSat project since 2011 and said it has been the most valuable and exciting part of his aerospace engineering education at CU-Boulder.
“I’ve gained experience that can’t be obtained any other way than actually working on space flight hardware,” Mason said. “I’ve gotten hands-on experience with project management, systems engineering, mechanical design and manufacturing, electrical assembly, thermal and stress analysis and trade studies, all within the context of highly integrated teamwork.”
CU-Boulder’s AeroSpace Ventures partners with industry to accelerate discoveries in Earth and space science, broadly educate tomorrow’s highly skilled workforce, develop technologies that create new commercial opportunities and create collaborations that help industry grow. Founding corporate partners include Ball Aerospace, Blue Canyon Technologies, Braxton Technologies, Lockheed Martin, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Surrey Satellite Technology US.
“In addition to educating the next-generation workforce of scientists and engineers, the MinXSS project exemplifies the mission of CU-Boulder’s AeroSpace Ventures,” said Scott Palo, a professor of aerospace engineering sciences. “AeroSpace Ventures is a collaboration among aerospace-related departments, institutes, centers and their industry partners to create knowledge and develop new technologies specifically focusing on unmanned and autonomous aircraft, small satellites and Earth and space sensors.”