And Then There Were Two: MTU’s Next Student-built Satellite Set to Launch in 2021

a young man in a knit gold and black striped hat with the Michigan Tech Husky logo on it works on a metal cube which is a nanosatellite being assembled
a young man in a knit gold and black striped hat with the Michigan Tech Husky logo on it works on a metal cube which is a nanosatellite being assembled
Michigan Tech's Aerospace Enterprise empowers undergraduate students to design, build, and fly spacecraft.

NASA has slated Michigan Technological University's second student-built satellite for a March 2021 deployment from the International Space Station (ISS).

Stratus, named for its cloud-imaging mission, will be carried to the space station, 200 miles above Earth, in a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule on a Falcon 9 rocket. The Dragon will dock to the ISS.

"Stratus will be unloaded by the crew, then placed in the Kibo Module's airlock, where the Japanese Experiment Module Remote Manipulator System robotic arm will move the satellite into the correct position and deploy it into space," said Brad King, Michigan Tech's Henes Endowed Professor in Space Systems, who has served as Aerospace Enterprise advisor since students came to him with the idea to form a team nearly two decades ago.

Hands hold a metal and plastic cubesat in a laboratory with a blurred background.
Not hard to see how CubeSats get their name. Stratus is a 3U spacecraft, which means it's composed of three units. This photo was taken in fall 2019.

Once successfully deployed, Stratus will be the University's second orbiting nanosatellite. The first, Oculus-ASR, was launched from Cape Canaveral in June 2019. Another satellite, Auris, designed to monitor communications emissions from geostationary satellites, has cleared system concept review in the design and development phase of the Air Force Research Lab University Nanosatellite Program (AFRL UNP).

Bill Predebon, J.S. Endowed Chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics in the College of Engineering, welcomed the news of a second satellite launch with praise for King and Aerospace Enterprise team members. "It is amazing that Michigan Tech will have a second student-built satellite in space next year."

"It is a testament to the creativity, ingenuity, and hands-on ability of our students. I am so proud of them."Bill Predebon

How the Payload is Paid For

Stratus is funded throughNASA's Undergraduate Student Instrument Programand CubeSat Launch Initiative.

Michigan Tech's third satellite, Auris, is funded by the AFRL University Nanosatellite Program.

Stratus will use infrared imagery to gather cloud data that can validate and improve numerical weather models. Michigan Tech Aerospace Team Program Manager Troy Maust, a fourth-year computer engineering major, has been working on the CubeSat project for about a year.

"This mission has been in the works for much longer," he said. "As with Oculus, I estimate more than 200 students and alumni have been part of this mission; it wouldn't be possible without them. I am delighted to see these years of hard work pay off."

The 10-by-10-by-30-centimeter, 4.4-kilogram Stratus CubeSat is considerably smaller than the 70-kilogram Oculus-ASR, a microsat which measures 50-by-50-by-80 centimeters. But both, as well as Auris, are classed in the broader category of nanosatellites, the craft that represent an important development in space industry trends.

"In the past, satellites have been large, multimillion-dollar projects," Maust said. "While large satellites are still being built, there is a shift toward using multiple smaller spacecraft in a constellation. Besides lowering the overall cost, constellations can provide coverage spread over a larger area. Stratus is an example of using this mindset for weather satellites."

Next Steps for Stratus: FlatSats and Day in the Life

"All of this will keep us busy until our December 2020 handover date."Troy Maust

The COVID-19 global pandemic has affected university access around the world, and Michigan Tech is no exception. Maust said much remains to be done. But as Huskies who relentlessly labored to prepare Oculus-ASR for its launch can attest, this isn't the first time the Aerospace Enterprise has contended with unexpectedly condensed timelines.

System level testing will take place as soon as campus is able to reopen. "We'll continue with FlatSat 1 and 2," Maust said. The names are explanatory and the steps are necessary before the CubeSat is entirely assembled. Spacecraft components are laid flat on the workbench and connected to the CubeSat's subsystems to verify that the system works together as a whole.

"Next comes DITL 1 and 2, or Day In The Life," said Maust. Again, the name is apt. "The tests simulate the actions our assembled spacecraft will perform in a day, with the final test running for a full 24 hours," Maust said. "Vibration and thermal vacuum testing will also be performed to ensure the spacecraft can withstand the harsh conditions of launch and space."

The process of designing, building and flying a spacecraft is multifaceted, which is why the Aerospace Enterprise, one of the largest at Michigan Tech, welcomes members from disciplines across campus and is organized into numerous subteams. While Stratus system-level testing is taking place, another subteam will be working on procuring any necessary Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) licensing. "This can be a long process and must be started well in advance of launch, as we will not be allowed to continue without the proper licensing," Maust said.

In 2016, Michigan Tech was selected to fly Stratus as an auxiliary payload. In early December 2019, a NASA-Goddard Spaceflight Center team conducted a thorough critical design review, or CDR. "While we suffered a few nicks and dings from the event, as is common during CDR, we passed and were able to move on to system integration in preparation for an upcoming launch," King said.

"Winning the NASA launch was great news, but our celebration was short. Suddenly our 'to-do' list has gotten a lot longer and the stakes have gotten a lot higher."

"I know these students can handle whatever challenges lie waiting between here and orbit. Like it was with Oculus, we will have our big celebration when we see the rocket heading skyward."Brad King

Do you have your sights on a career in aerospace engineering?

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.