LOWELL — NASA recently awarded a team of more than 50 students from UMass Lowell with $200,000 to design and build a satellite that they hope to launch in 2018.
One of the students participating in the project is Michael Zurawski, of Tewksbury, who is a Computer Science major and will be going into his second semester as a junior when school starts up again.
The UMass Lowell team's proposal to build the satellite received the maximum amount of NASA funding available through the agency's Undergraduate Student Instrument Project, which is $200,000.
The initiative engages college students across the country to flex their technical, leadership and project-management skills by offering them real-world opportunities relevant to NASA missions.
“This project is really cool, it’s a great learning opportunity,” said Zurawski. “I didn’t think I would be doing something like this in my junior year.”
More than 50 UMass Lowell students in the fields of engineering and computer science are developing the Science Program Around Communications Engineering with High-Achieving Undergraduate Cadres. (SPACE HAUC) satellite under the direction of Physics Professor Supriya Chakrabarti, who leads the university's Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology.
The satellite's name, pronounced "Space Hawk," is a tip of the hat to UMass Lowell's athletic teams, the River Hawks.
When they awarded the grant, NASA called SPACE HAUC a top-notch training program.
Once the spacecraft is ready, and NASA hopes to deploy the satellite into orbit around the Earth for a yearlong mission to test its ability to collect and transmit research data at faster speeds than ever before possible.
On his role as a Computer Science major on the team, Zurawski said, “We split into subgroups, and the group I’m in are like the programmers, we’re one of the bigger subgroups with ten to twelve of us, and we work on the operating system.”
SPACE HAUC will be what's known as a cube satellite or "CubeSat," which is a miniaturized, low-cost alternative to larger models. The finished spacecraft will measure about a foot in length and four inches in both width and height and will weigh nine pounds.
Once launched, the satellite will reach altitudes between 99 and 1,200 miles while circling the Earth approximately every 90 minutes at about 17,000 miles per hour. Four solar panels will supply electricity to power the satellite's electronics.
The goal of the project is to demonstrate the satellite's ability to transmit data at up to 50 to 100 megabits per second, which is significantly faster than current models. It will collect images of the sun and return them to Earth to test its data-transmission capabilities.
The team was given until 2018 to complete the project.
“NASA gave us two years for the project,” said Zurawski. “I think we could be done by next May, I don’t think it will take the whole two years.”
The project's program manager is Dat Le, a UMass Lowell mechanical engineering major from Billerica who will begin his final semester in September.
Collaborators for the project include the university's Raytheon-UMass Lowell Research Institute (RURI) and the Printed Electronics Research Collaborative (PERC), as well as the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium, BAE Systems and Draper Laboratory.
As to how he found out about and joined the team, Zurawski said, “A friend mentioned it to me and I thought it sounded really cool, so after I found out about it I just jumped in right away and joined the team.”
SPACE HAUC is not the first time that UMass Lowell has collaborated with NASA.
In 2012, physics professor Timothy Cook, Chakrabarti, and a team of students, reearchers, and engineers, launched the NASA-funded IMAGER rocket to observe dust formation in a remote galaxy known as M101.
Three years later, the same team launched another rocket-borne experiment known as PICTURE-B to take images of intergalactic dust around the star Epsilon Eridani.
In 2017 and 2019, a team led by Chakrabarti will use huge helium balloons to send an instrument known as PICTURE-C to the edge of the atmosphere to take images of disks of debris that are orbiting stars in the Milky Way.
NASA is also working with UMass Lowell robotics researchers at the university's New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) Center to develop the capabilities of "Valkyrie," the space agency's 6-foot, 300-pound humanoid robot.
NASA selected researchers from UMass Lowell and Northeastern University last fall to receive "Val," to expand the robot's capabilities for use in future space exploration, including interaction with human astronauts.