University heads to space, embarks on project with NASA
THE SANTA CLARA
October 30, 2014
Santa Clara students, ranging from freshmen to doctoral candidates, will be able to monitor and control NASA satellites using a 28-foot mobile laboratory which will make frequent visits to campus.
“This is a one-of-a-kind educational opportunity in a university environment,” said Christopher Kitts, director of Santa Clara Robotics Systems Laboratory.
For the past decade, Santa Clara has controlled a line of small NASA and industry satellites from both Santa Clara labs and NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Federal Airfield. Once the satellites are launched into space, they are operated by student-developed mission control centers, communication stations and software.
“On a daily basis we are communicating with NASA-built and flown satellites,” said engineering graduate student Nicholas Xydes, who operates the satellites. “Our operations are critical to the success of these scientific missions, which helps us see a bigger picture beyond just our education.”
Santa Clara is the only university in the country to operate government and industry satellites using a student-controlled program.
Six months ago, a mobile laboratory was purchased for the purpose of controlling satellites from additional locations.
It is just now becoming fully equipped to control satellites. Santa Clara can also communicate with satellites from locations such as Missouri, Texas and Massachusetts in the lab.
Students send commands to the satellites, obtain data, run the experiments and detect and fix problems.
According to Kitts, also the overseer of the Mobile Mission Control Lab program, the amount of time the researchers have to interact with a satellite depends on the location of a communications center. If the researchers require a new location, the mobile can be temporarily placed there for several weeks.
“Most of the NASA satellites perform experiments related to biological processes in the space environment, such as being in microgravity and being in an environment with heavy radiation,” Kitts added.
Other universities that operate satellites typically have large professional staffs with some student involvement, but in Santa Clara’s satellite program, students lead the engineering efforts.
In January 2015, the students are slated to control an additional eight NASA satellites. The mobile lab will be fully operational by then to control the satellites.
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