A four inch by four inch cube launched into space this week is sending back signals from 300 miles up. It's one of an increasing number of relatively new and inexpensive tiny satellites called CubeSats.
What distinguishes this particular one is it began life on a workbench at Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center.
The CubeSat designed by VTC was among those built by nine universities and one high school and launched Tuesday evening aboard an Air Force rocket from a NASA facility in Virginia.
The small satellites are becoming popular among academic institutions because of their cost and their research potential.
Science professor Dr. Carl Brandon directs the VTC CubeSat Laboratory. VTC students helped build some of the hardware and design the software that’s now orbiting the earth. Brandon says that kind of real-world experience is something most undergraduates don’t get.
“It’s different from designing something in a class. It’s a different level when you’re doing something that has to work,” says Brandon with a laugh as he stands in the midst of the tools, circuit boards, wires and instruments that fill his small office.
Brandon says beyond their value as teaching aids, CubeSats are capable of making real contributions to scientific knowledge.
“It’s amazing what some of the CubeSats are doing. MIT has been working on theirs for a long time. It’s a mini-Kepler Telescope. It’s looking for exo-planets,” he says - referring to the now disabled space telescope that searches for planets beyond our solar system.
Brandon is pleased that VTC is the first New England college or university– ahead of MIT and others - to get a CubeSat off the launch pad.
The satellite, which will stay aloft for about two years, is testing navigation components. Brandon sees it as a precursor to the next VTC CubeSat project: A tiny satellite that will travel to the moon. The satellite would have its own propulsion system and would be guided from Earth.
“Now that we have shown we can build a satellite that works and is in orbit, it puts us in a really good position for getting further grant money,” he says.
Brandon estimates the VTC CubeSat cost $50,000. Grants from NASA paid the lion’s share of the cost, which also included funds for faculty time and other costs, with additional money from the Vermont Space Grant Consortium.
Brandon says in an era of government budget cuts, CubeSats are, "much more cost-effective than big satellites and you can do things that are much riskier because you're not risking a $2 billion dollar satellite, you're risking a $50,000 satellite."
The CubeSat launched this week is equipped with bright light emitting-diodes (LEDs) designed and built by former students of Brandon’s who run a Randolph company called LEDdynamics. The lights are visible from earth with binoculars.