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SmallSat Lab nurtures spaceport opportunities for NMSU students

New Mexico State University has received $99,999 from the Air Force Research Laboratory to re-establish the SmallSat Laboratory in the Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Student in laboratory
Engineering student Chris Galvan works on a nanosatellite inside one of the Goaddard Hall engineering laboratories. (photo by Darren Phillips)

The SmallSat program was started by former NMSU professor Steve Horan in 2001, and is now run by Steve Stochaj, an electrical engineering professor.

The lab's mission is to foster research and provide students with hands-on engineering experience through the development and operation of small satellites.

"I'd like to boost the science aspect of our satellites," said Stochaj. "There is a growing need to prepare students for the challenges they will face in the workforce."

The recent grant, he explained, will be divided in two. One portion will be used to pay students who are conducting undergraduate work. The rest will be used to purchase equipment.

One of Stochaj's goals for SmallSat includes competing in the University Nanosat Program.

Sponsored by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and the Space Development and Test Wing, the program hosts a competition that has teams vying for a spot as a secondary payload as part of a NASA launch.

Teams submit their proposals, and about a dozen are chosen to build their own satellite. Out of those, one is selected to be launched.

NMSU will submit a proposal to the University Nanosat Program in the fall. Stochaj and his students have already begun to design parts of the satellite, and he said he anticipates that, if selected, the work will be completed in two years.

Stochaj began the program with about four students. He said he is hoping more students will take an interest in participating after taking his satellite design class.

Chris Galvan is one of the students enticed by what he learned from Stochaj's class, space system mission design and analysis.

"For as long as I can remember, I have had a fascination for space exploration and the space systems that get us there," he said. "When I joined the electrical engineering program ... I quickly found myself not only intrigued by the many areas electrical engineering had to offer, but enthusiastic to be involved and seek guidance from my professors.

"Amongst the professors that took an interest in me was Dr. Stochaj. I quickly learned that I would not find a better mentor. [His] class really helped to mold my interests and motivate me to one day work in this area. He is directly responsible for not only my interest in satellites, but also my experience in a satellite design environment."

Galvan added that he would like to see the program grow, in terms of students and resources.

Stochaj explained the difference between SmallSat's work, and that of rocketry organizations.

"Rockets are suborbital," he said. "Payloads for rockets involve going up and coming back down. They have 15 to 20 minutes of a complete flight time. Satellites can stay in orbit for several years. Right now we are concentrating on space weather satellites, which would measure particles that are emitted during solar eruptions."

Stochaj works with two types of small satellites - nanosats and cubesats.

Unlike traditional satellites, cubesats (like the name suggests), are box-shaped.

"The cubesats are very small, with mass under one kilogram," said Stochaj. "The uniform size makes them easier to launch on a variety of vehicles. The nanosats are small relative to typical satellites, but much larger than the cubesats. Nanosats need to be less than 50 kilograms [each], and the shape varies to support the mission. These are large enough to require a more specialized interface with the launch vehicle."

Satellites are typically built with aluminum, he added.

The cost to build a cubesat - excluding labor - is from $20,000 to $30,000. Nanosats can cost up to $100,000.

SmallSat is collaborating with the University of New Hampshire and the University of New Mexico on its project for the competition.

NMSU previously collaborated with Arizona State University and the University of Colorado at Boulder on a satellite project that won the first University Nanosat Program. The satellite was launched on the first Boeing Delta IV Heavy rocket, but failed to reach orbit due to the underperformance of the rocket's second stage.