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Thinking Small

New USC Research Center Will Build Next-Generation “Microsatellites”

March 03, 2005 —
The USC Viterbi School of Engineering has formed the Microsatellite Systems Center to focus on research and advanced technology development for a smaller and less expensive class of satellite systems.  The initiative complements related activities establishing astronautics & space technology degree programs and a capability to build & fly microsatellites in space.
 “The aerospace industry currently has a critical shortage of young engineers trained in astronautics and space,” said Viterbi School Dean C.L. Max Nikias.  “We believe this center will nurture new engineering talent and allow Southern California to seize the opportunity to become a world center for microsatellites.”

Microsatellite launched by French Ariane 5 rocket.
Image: NASA/JPL.
Typically, even "small" satellites today tip the scales at 400 kilograms (880 pounds).  These complex satellites are usually built by governments and relatively inflexible in regard to uses.

“It’s just too expensive to design one for a single use, and even creating a module to go into a large satellite can complicate the mission unless the orbital needs closely correspond with the other modules on board,” said Peter Will, an award winning robotics researcher and Fellow at the USC Viterbi School’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI) in Marina del Rey who will direct the microsatellite center in partnership with the school’s Astronautics and Space Technology Division at USC University Park Campus.

“We think that space research and exploration needs the equivalent of the personal computer – small, relatively cheap, highly flexible vehicles,” said Will.  “This will greatly expand the use of space in the service of mankind.”

The new center will concentrate on microsatellites around the100 kg (220 pounds) or less class.  Research will evaluate microsatellite capabilities in a variety of tasks, from earth imaging, communications, asset and personnel tracking, through applications in space science.

Will said that the challenges involved in the creation of such vehicles requires a team with a broad range of expertise including astronautics, propulsion, instrumentation, computation and control, spacecraft construction, radiation hardening, communications and networking. MSC is the research element of a three-pronged USC effort under pursuit to develop capabilities within space.
MSC Director Peter Will and robot models resting on air hockey table used
to simulate weightlessness.

Will said that the scientific challenges involved in the creation of such vehicles require teams with a broad range of expertise, including astronautics, propulsion, space instruments, on-board computation, control, computer aided design, spacecraft construction, radiation hardening, communications and networking.

“We already have large pieces of this pattern in place at USC,” he said. “In Los Angeles we have rich resources, both academic and industrial, in the relevant categories.”

Professor Mike Gruntman, chair of the Viterbi School’s Astronautics and Space Technology Division, notes that the division already has degree programs focused on spacecraft engineering, anchoring USC in an academic focus in this field.  Gruntman says the microsatellite initiative “will open new, unique opportunities for students to be involved in real-world advanced space projects”. 

Working with Will and Gruntman in the USC Microsatellite Systems Center will be ISI Division Director John Damoulakis, ISI Associate Director for Development Joe Sullivan, and Dan Erwin, associate professor from the Astronautics and Space Technology Division.

Will holds research professor positions in the Viterbi School’s Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and the Department of Materials Science as well as in the Astronautics and Space Technology Division. He is a past winner of  the Engelberger prize in robotics. .

A goal of the MSC is to incorporate new and advanced technologies developed by USC and other partners/companies/agencies and to supplement the effort by using hands-on undergraduate and graduate student participation to integrate and deliver next generation satellites. 

The MSC is taking direct advantage of the recent grants won by ISI from NASA, totaling $58 million, and from Gruntman’s work as a co-investigator in NASA space missions, including recently selected Interstellar Boundary Explorer.  
These initiatives in combination form a cornerstone for the next generation of USC researchers and engineers to experiment, build and fly exciting missions in space.