SPACE HAUC, UMass Lowell’s first satellite, recently passed a critical test that cleared the way for its upcoming launch into Earth orbit. The satellite was designed and built by more than 100 students from the Kennedy College of Sciences and the Francis College of Engineering over the course of five years. It is based on the cube satellite (CubeSat) model used worldwide for low-Earth orbit space research.
“The purpose of this student experiment is to demonstrate technology that hasn’t been done in such a small package,” said Physics Prof. Supriya Chakrabarti, director of the Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology (LoCSST) and principal investigator for the satellite project. “The students will be sending large amounts of data from space to the ground using the CubeSat platform.”
SPACE HAUC (pronounced “Space Hawk”) – which stands for Science Program Around Communications Engineering with High-Achieving Undergraduate Cadres – is just 12 inches in length and weighs about 9 pounds. It has four solar panels that will deploy in orbit to supply electricity to power the satellite’s electronics.
In preparation for the flight, SPACE HAUC recently underwent vibration testing at the NTS lab facility in Boxborough, Massachusetts, to simulate the dynamic stresses that the satellite would experience during launch.
“The test is an important milestone,” said Chakrabarti. “I’m extremely proud of the work done by our students.”
After the test, the satellite was brought back to the LoCSST clean room facility near East Campus, where student researchers and representatives from Nanoracks, a Houston-based company contracted by NASA, package small research payloads for delivery to the International Space Station, gave it a thorough examination.
“SPACE HAUC passed with flying colors,” said Chakrabarti. “The satellite was able to establish radio communication and deploy its solar panels on command. This was a momentous occasion.”
“The vibration test is the last hurdle before the satellite gets certified as flight-ready,” said Susanna Finn, a LoCSST research scientist who, until this year, was the SPACE HAUC team’s advisor. She now works as a program scientist in the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“To see all the satellite’s components working is very reassuring and gives us the green light to launch,” Finn said.
In early July, the team packed and shipped SPACE HAUC to Nanoracks, which integrated it into one of the company's CubeSat deployers bound for the International Space Station.
“The deployers were delivered to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on July 16,” said Tristan Prejean, a Nanoracks satellite program manager. He and Cole Winkler, a Nanoracks mission manager, were on hand for the vibration testing to confirm the flight readiness of the satellite. “NASA will then transport the deployers from Houston to Cape Canaveral in Florida for the launch,” said Prejean.
SPACE HAUC will be part of the ELaNa (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) 37 mission that includes CubeSats from the University of Illinois and the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico. Once ready, the ELaNa 37 CubeSats will be loaded into a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Liftoff is currently planned for Aug. 29, weather permitting, from the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39-A.
The ELaNa 37 CubeSats are on the SpaceX flight manifest for CRS-23, which is a regular commercial resupply service mission to the International Space Station. SpaceX is under contract with NASA to deliver supplies and experiments for the astronauts using the company’s Cargo Dragon vehicle. Once in space, the three CubeSats will be stored until their release into low-Earth orbit from the space station. SPACE HAUC’s deployment is currently slated for Oct. 11.
“The students have put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into the project, so that would be a big day for them,” said team mentor and Physics Assoc. Prof. Timothy Cook.
The SPACE HAUC mission aims to demonstrate – for the first time – the feasibility of a student-developed communication system at high data rates in the X band using a phased array of 16 patch antennas on the CubeSat. The antennas will operate at frequencies of 7.2 to 8.3 gigahertz from an altitude of about 250 miles.
“The antennas all have to work together like a marching band,” Chakrabarti explained. “We can send data anywhere and electronically maneuver the satellite in space, a technique called beam steering."
Many CubeSats transmit data to ground controllers in the S-band at an average speed of 2 to 5 megabits per second. SPACE HAUC seeks to increase that speed to 50 to 100 megabits per second.
The students plan to maintain a communication link between the satellite and ground stations on campus and the MIT Haystack Observatory in Westford, Massachusetts.
SPACE HAUC is expected to stay in orbit for a year or more before it gradually loses altitude and falls back to Earth. As it re-enters the atmosphere, aerodynamic stress and heating will cause the satellite to disintegrate and burn up harmlessly, high above the ground.
The project was funded with an initial $200,000 grant from NASA. Additional funding was provided by the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium and the Francis College of Engineering.
“Our goal is to train students to be the next generation of astronomers and space scientists and engineers through hands-on involvement in all phases of the mission, from instrument development to data analysis,” said Chakrabarti.
Aside from LoCSST, other SPACE HAUC research collaborators include the university’s Submillimeter-Wave Technology Laboratory, the Raytheon-UMass Lowell Research Institute, and the Printed Electronics Research Collaborative, as well as Analog Devices, Raytheon Technologies, 4C Test Systems, BAE Systems, Draper Laboratory, and MIT Haystack Observatory.
“Analog Devices has been a tremendous help by providing hardware support and technical advice,” said Sanjeev Mehta, who received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at UML in 2018 and decided to stay on as the team’s program manager. He also said that "the company helped us build an entire communications system from scratch, testing it and making sure we can integrate it with the satellite. It’s a great collaboration with industry.”
Mehta, who has been involved with the project since 2016, worked on the satellite’s radio communications system, designing and testing the antenna and its electronics and doing systems engineering to make sure the components are all working.
“It’s been a great experience. Undergraduates normally don’t get exposed to working on a real spacecraft. It’s not just a class project – it’s a real space mission. So, we’re very fortunate,” quoted Mehta, who started a new job this summer as a project systems engineer for the University of New Hampshire’s own undergraduate CubeSat program.
Sean Freeman, who graduated from the university with a bachelor’s degree in 2020 and a master’s degree this past May, both in mechanical engineering, co-managed the SPACE HAUC program with Mehta. Freeman first joined the satellite’s structures subsystem team when he was a sophomore. “It’s amazing to think that something you’ve helped design and build with your own hands will soon be going to space and orbiting the Earth,” he said.
Freeman has landed a job as an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where he will be starting this July. He will help conduct structural dynamics testing and analysis of large booster rockets for the U.S. space program. He credits his experience with SPACE HAUC for giving him the knowledge and hands-on training to embark on his new career.
“SPACE HAUC was one of the projects that I talked about during my job interview,” he said. “They feel that I have the experience in doing computer analysis and vibration testing for the rocket components. So, I’m now going to apply what I learned to my new job.”
For physics Ph.D. student Sunip Mukherjee, working on SPACE HAUC has been a life-changing experience for him.
“The project gave me the opportunity to design a system that has many moving parts, both physically and figuratively, that would have to synchronize among themselves. I learned a lot about hardware, software, and their interfaces – an experience that would have taken me many years to gain if not for this project,” said Mukherjee, who is the team’s software systems engineer. “We’ll be eagerly waiting to receive the first radio transmission from SPACE HAUC,” he said.