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Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Students building satellite that’s seen as future of space research

UC Berkeley
Oct 03, 2011

Students assemble the CubeSat every day. starting from scratch, to figure out how the pieces fit together. (Roibín Ó hÉochaidh photo)

Using needle-thin solder, tweezers and a very steady hand, Anna Espinal peers through a microscope and attaches capacitors the size of large grains of sand to boards no bigger than a credit card.

Each board — she’s building eight — requires hundreds of capacitors, connected by circuits Espinal is laying down with more precision soldering.

The circuit boards, along with a processor, will function as the brain of a tiny satellite called a CubeSat that an international team of engineering students is constructing in Berkeley’s Space Sciences Lab.

If all goes as planned, Berkeley’s CubeSat will ride up into space on an Atlas rocket fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California next June. It is being designed to spend a year in orbit, using a new miniature instrument to measure ions, electrons and neutral particles, and a magnetometer to measure currents generated during electrical storms, and radio the information back to Earth.

Espinal arrived from Puerto Rico in July to work on the satellite. Just down the workbench from her, David Clarino, a recent Berkeley graduate in physics and electrical engineering, is figuring out the connections linking the processor, the boards and the satellite’s radio and scientific equipment.

Downstairs in another lab, Berkeley senior Stephanie Taylor sits at a computer working out the flight software. A student in computer science and electrical engineering, she spent the summer before her senior year working at NASA and joined the CubeSat team in February.

South Korean students working with her are helping Berkeley’s effort as well as learning what they need to know to build two just like it back home.

In the basement, a group of mechanical engineers from Berkeley and Korea works to fit the pieces together, an intricate 3-D puzzle. Every day they start over, learning from the previous day’s experience how to adjust the boards, wires and equipment — including an aerial boom that extends to three feet — into the shiny little chassis.

“This is probably the most complicated CubeSat anyone has ever fabricated,” says Thomas Immel, a research physicist at the lab and part of the faculty team supervising the project.
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