MILWAUKEE (AP) - Students at Marquette University have received NASA permission to send a tiny satellite into space that will photograph the Earth for about three months.
The satellite will be part of a NASA program that encourages research in engineering and technology. The space agency allows a handful of institutions each year to produce cube-shaped satellites, or CubeSats, that it launches into low orbits. It approved Marquette's proposal and 15 other projects this month.
The Milwaukee school's nanosatellite, which will be about the size of a coffee mug, will be called Golden Eagle 1 after the university mascot. Its pictures will largely replicate those NASA already has on hand, but the point of the project isn't photography so much as to have students apply scientific concepts to a real-life situation, said Bob Bishop, the dean of Marquette's college of engineering.
"The idea that you can design a spacecraft that actually orbits the Earth, and that you can communicate with it, is in some ways a dream come true," Bishop said. "It stimulates the imagination of students and it also prepares them to solve the tough technological challenges facing the world."
NASA sets very precise specifications for CubeSats. In general, they have to be cubes about 4 inches in length and weigh no more than 3 pounds. That doesn't leave a lot of room for extra parts.
Golden Eagle 1 will contain two tiny cameras that transmit photos back to Earth. One will take standard pictures and the other will take heat-imaging photos. The satellite will have some hardware for memory and communications, but not much else.
Peter Jorgensen, a graduate student who has managed Marquette's CubeSat program since it began three years ago, said the photos won't be of extraordinary quality because the cube's size prevents the use of large lenses. But he said the goal was more to generate publicity and interest in the program than to reveal new feature of Earth's topography.
The satellite will circle the Earth every 90 minutes and spend a total of about 7 to 10 minutes per day over Milwaukee, Bishop said.
The Marquette team is still trying to determine how often to have the satellite take pictures and send back data. It will likely send thumbnails, and students will select which full photos to download. That could take up to a week per picture depending on the resolution and how far Golden Eagle 1 is from Milwaukee, Bishop said.
The solar-powered cube won't have thrusters or rockets to allow researchers to aim it. Instead it will contain a passive gravity mechanism that keeps it pointed at the Earth. Eventually, it will fall back into the atmosphere and burn up without a trace, Bishop said.
NASA is expected to send up Golden Eagle 1 as part of a larger launch between 2015 and 2017. Usually when the space agency launches a commercial satellite or other payload, there's unused space in the rocket capsule that has to be filled with weight for proper balancing. Rather than use worthless filler, NASA decided to allow CubeSats.
While NASA will pay for the launch, Marquette must cover its satellite research and development costs, which Bishop estimated at $50,000.
Devin Turner, a Marquette senior in mechanical engineering, has been working on how to squeeze all the satellite's components into a small space. The 22-year-old Madison man said the work helps him stay close to his boyhood passion of being an astronaut.
"It's an amazing opportunity to work on something that's going leave Earth's atmosphere - to remain in contact with it, to actually see photo evidence of the work you've done get sent back," Turner said. "It's just such an incredible feeling."