Published March 1, 2016
What self-respecting science fiction aficionado wouldn’t jump at the chance to design and build a spacecraft that could help transform the future of spaceflight?
Some engineering students at UB are getting just that opportunity through the UB Nanosatellite Lab.
The lab, run by undergraduate and graduate engineering students, is building GLADOS, a satellite the size of a shoebox. The main purpose of the nanosatellite will be to track the thousands of pieces of space debris, also known as space junk, that are orbiting the Earth and threatening to crash into and damage satellites.
Satellite operators need such data in order to know whether to maneuver their spacecraft out of the way of debris. Students in the UB Nanosat lab have been working with the Air Force Research Lab on the project for nearly five years; the project now is being managed by Seamus Lombardo.
“It is our responsibility, exclusively as a lab, to design the spacecraft,” says Lombardo, a junior double majoring in aerospace and mechanical engineering. Working on this innovative project using basic guidelines from the Air Force hasn’t been an easy job, but it’s been worth it, he says.
“It’s an intense project that takes up a lot of our time, but it’s very rewarding. To be able to say that something we designed and built will be in space in a couple of years is pretty cool,” he says.
Working on GLADOS has provided these aspiring engineers with a hands-on experience that is rare at many universities.
“You learn so much more through actually doing than just sitting in class,” Lombardo says. “I have learned more by working on this project than I have from all my classes combined. A lot of the stuff that we do on the team, you don’t learn in class until you’re a graduate student.”
Working in the lab has prepared these students to be top-tier job candidates and has opened a lot of doors for them. Many have worked at such places as NASA and SpaceX; others have gone on to top graduate schools for engineering.
“All of us have gotten great internships. In engineering, it’s all about results and what you actually know how to do,” Lombardo notes. “This laboratory very much provides that for us. Some people, even after their freshman year, have gotten an internship at NASA.”
Maura Sutherland, a sophomore also double majoring in aerospace and mechanical engineering, interned at SpaceX during the fall semester. Chief engineer for GLADOS, she values her time in the laboratory.
“What you learn in the lab is so fundamental to what you are doing outside in the real world. The skills that I learned, I used at my internship. I would say my experience is what really got me that position,” Sutherland says.
The UB Nanosatellite Lab isn’t just about building a satellite; it’s about building a community. Working on GLADOS for countless hours alongside fellow classmates has helped team members form a strong bond. Helping each other with homework assignments, tutoring one another or hanging out outside of the lab has become the norm among lab mates.
“Everyone at the lab is very much a family. Our lab as a whole is so friendly and it is really nice to have people there,” Sutherland says. “It’s very much student-run. Our principal investigator, John Crassidis (CUBRC Professor in Space Situational Awareness in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences), gives us a lot of freedom, so it’s us running everything, making sure stuff gets done. It’s very much a student effort.”
Over the years the lab has grown and expanded, with 60 undergraduates and five graduate students now involved in the work. The lab also is moving from Bell Hall to new, larger quarters in Hochstetter Hall.
“When we joined, it was still in a building process. We’ve really become more professional in the last year,” Lombardo says. “Now we have a really nice, new website where we require applications from everybody joining. We just want to formalize the process.”
With a redefined process for recruiting students to work on the nanosatellite, the lab is not just looking for students who have the grades.
“The most important prerequisite isn’t knowledge; it’s motivation. If you come and start showing up, people will teach you how to do things so you can figure out how to do them by yourself. It’s basically just showing us that you want to learn,” Lombardo says.
“The lab attracts people who are very motivated and really want to make their mark on the world, which is really important,” adds Sutherland. “The skills and the things we teach people are one thing, but the motivation that people bring to us — and we try to instill in the people who come to us — helps, too. We have very passionate, very dedicated people. All of them have the best interest of the satellite in mind.”
With their passion and motivation intact, the students find themselves inching closer to their main goal. GLADOS is scheduled to go the Air Force by mid-2017 in hopes that after a year of functional testing it will be ready to launch by mid-2018. The students will continue to be responsible for it after launch, observing it from their own mission control ground station at UB.
“Even though we are handing it to the Air Force, the project essentially doesn’t end. Our de-orbit requirement is 25 years, so if everything goes according to plan, the satellite will be up there and functioning for a very long time,” Lombardo says.
These UB students will be leaving their mark in space with GLADOS, as well as changing the future of aerospace.
“The work that we do is really going to play a big part in the future of spaceflight, just because tracking all this debris is going to be important for putting up future satellites, and for efforts to go to Mars and other planets,” Sutherland says. “The work that we do is not just a lot of fun and really cool; it’s actually going to contribute to humanity.”
As for the future of the UB Nanosatellite Lab, Lombardo hopes it will grow into a community that will make space more accessible.
“I see the lab growing into something where we have multiple satellites, can pay certain members of our staff and maybe even do in-house testing of certain things for people in industry,” he says. “We want to market ourselves as an inexpensive way to get spacecraft built.”