Professor, Science Department
Director, CubeSat Laboratory
Three hundred miles above our heads, a four-inch-cube miniature satellite - the first one ever launched by a New England college or university - circled in low-Earth orbit, taking photos of our planet and transmitting them back to its home base at Vermont Tech's CubeSat Laboratory for two years and two days.
"This CubeSat was part of a larger scheme," explains Professor Carl Brandon, Director of the CubeSat Lab. "We tested its systems and navigation components in order to help us design the next one, which is going into orbit around the moon."
Brandon (who points out that he has applied for 17 NASA grants and received 27) has been working on the CubeSat project for more than ten years, with help from VTC students. While he constructed the satellite's hardware, his students worked on the software with the assistance and supervision of Professor Peter Chapin. Recent VTC graduate Dan Turner wrote most of the software code and was thrilled to get some hands-on experience with a space program.
"I'd like to get even more students involved," says Brandon. "I want people to know that you can work on a real-world research project as an undergrad at Vermont Tech - this is unusual. We are offering opportunities most schools can't offer, and the hands-on learning is incredibly valuable."
With an estimated cost of $50,000 (compared to several hundred million or more for a typical satellite), CubeSats have started a revolution in space by making satellite operations far more accessible. "Imagine how helpful affordable high altitude photos could be to disaster relief groups, environmental agencies, farmers, traffic planners - the list goes on," says Brandon. "We've built a satellite that worked for its entire two years and two days in orbit, so we've shown it can be done. So far, NASA has funded the project, and I think we'll have no problem getting additional grants to fund the next phase. It's going to be even more exciting, because Vermont Tech students will write the flight and ground software for the Lunar IceCube 6U (10cm x 20cm x 30cm, 14kg) CubeSat that will get a ride to the Moon on the maiden flight of NASA’s Space Launch System in 2018, then entering orbit with its own ion drive!” This new CubeSat has a budget of over $15,000,000.
Morehead State University (KY) is the principal investigator, with an infrared spectrometer from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and a high tech radio, Iris 2 from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. This CubeSat will orbit the Moon for about six months looking for water and other volatiles. We will be using NASA’s Deep Space Network to communicate with it while it is orbiting the Moon. At the end of the Lunar observations, we may send it to Mars.
In July, 2014 Brandon was named a "top innovator" by Embedded Computer Design magazine. Additionally, the CubeSat has been featured in Air & Space Magazine, Fox News, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and WCAX. Learn more by visiting the CubeSat website.