Logo: University of Southern California

Space Engineering Research Center Launches Nanosatellite

The size of a loaf of bread, Aeneas is the first nanosatellite able to track an object on the Earth's surface
By: Katie Dunham
September 20, 2012 —
USC's second CubeSat, Aeneas was built by the Space Engineering Research Center at USC Information Sciences Institute.

On Sept. 13, USC’s Space Engineering Research Center (SERC) launched the first “CubeSat” — a miniature satellite built in cubic compartments — with the ability to deploy a parabolic dish and track a point on the surface of the Earth.

The satellite, dubbed “Aeneas,” is the first CubeSat with this tracking capability, which it will use in an attempt to track shipping containers on the open ocean. While satellites are generally operated pointed towards a fixed location (the earth, the sun, a star, etc.), Aeneas will employ three-axis stabilization control to track the moving containers, demonstrating that global satellite tracking can be performed by nanosatellites.

Part of a widespread effort to build nanosatellites at relatively low cost, CubeSats represent a cost-effective way to explore new satellite architectures and address niche applications, as they can easily piggyback onto other space launches. What used to require a $6 million spacecraft and a $20 million launch could theoretically be done for a fraction of the price, provided the mission is not too complex.

"This is yet another testament to the great nanosatellite work being done at USC Information Sciences Institute and the Viterbi School’s Astronautical Engineering Department,” said Yannis C. Yortsos, Dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “It continues a strong tradition of USC engineering involvement in space. We couldn't be more pleased to be part of the Aeneas mission."

Aeneas was launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, Calif.

Built at USC’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI) by a rotating team of students and staff members, Aeneas marks two firsts for cube satellites: It will be both the first CubeSat in history to ground track (or track a point on the surface of the earth) and the first to deploy a half-meter parabolic dish, the largest deployable from a nanosatellite. A system nearly three years in the making, the dish is a high gain antenna, to be deployed from a structure not much larger than a loaf of bread.

Aeneas’ main payload is a 1-watt WiFi-like transceiver that will be used to track the cargo containers and that will aid the Department of Homeland Security in its Secure Corridors program. A secondary payload that was designed and built but missed integration was a space qualification demonstration of the MAESTRO (the next generation of space computer) processor developed by Boeing and funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). A 49-core processor, the chip is being launched to test its capability of working in orbit. As SERC’s Associate Director Tim Barrett explains, “You can’t fly something in space unless it’s flown in space.” The MAESTRO processor is now scheduled to fly on an upcoming launch.

Work on Aeneas began in the fall of 2009, but was briefly interrupted when SERC was approved to design, build and launch Caerus, USC’s first nanosatellite subsystem, two years ago. The brief interruption proved fruitful, however, enabling the team to utilize already space-tested equipment built for the earlier project on Aeneas.

After its launch, Aeneas will be monitored by SERC students and employees from a ground station at USC’s University Park and ISI campuses, as well as a mobile ground station in Barrett’s backyard. The mission is expected to be completed in three months, though the satellite itself could remain in orbit for several years.

While the basic satellite bus was provided by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) Colony CubeSat Program, funding for Aeneas enhancements, flight software, payloads, staff and students was provided by Congressional STEM funding, California Space Grant Consortium, Northrup-Grumman, Boeing, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Lord Foundation, the Rose Hills Foundation, internal ISI funding and USC’s Office of the Provost.

SERC was established in 2006 by staff from USC ISI’s Space Group and the faculty of USC’s Department of Astronautical Engineering, including Professor Joseph Kunc, SERC’s director since its creation. Created out of discussions with local space industry and national labs, SERC seeks to develop sustainable and achievable low cost rapid design-to-orbit space systems.

“Most industry professionals only see a few space flights in their entire career. The fact that we’ve had two in only a few years is huge,” said Barrett.

Adds Kunc, “An educational hands-on program where undergraduates from freshman to seniors can directly participate in the designing, building and testing of fully operational space hardware and software is indeed a very unique accomplishment.” In fact, when launched in May 2010, Caerus contained a deployment burn wire designed by a USC freshman.

In fact, SERC may even surpass that feat as staff and students already have other NanoSat projects underway, including the use and test of a space qualification MAESTRO (the next generation of space computer) processor, a Ka band radio science experiment and expanding CubeSats from month-long missions to 36 month mission life NanoSats. SERC’s willingness and ability to produce and integrate Aeneas into its upcoming government launch resulted in the opportunity to fly on the next NanoSat-equipped government mission scheduled for the fall of 2013.