College of Engineering News Room

Satellites Engineered by IAE Students, Faculty Launch on World Record Mission

SpaceX Launch Photo

SpaceX flight Transporter-1 launched from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida Sunday, January 24, 2021. Picture courtesy of SpaceX.

by Russell Nay

Three of the 143 satellites aboard spaceflight company SpaceX’s first dedicated rideshare mission — named Transporter-1 — were engineered by students and faculty at the USF Institute of Applied Engineering (IAE).

The mission hosted satellites from dozens of nations and set a world record for the most satellites launched into space on a single mission.

Once in Sun Synchronous Low Earth Orbit (525 km altitude), the satellites built by the USF IAE team, along with 15 other payloads from more than 10 other organizations, were deployed from global launch services provider Spaceflight Inc.’s orbital transfer vehicle (OTV) Sherpa-FX1.

Called SmallSats, the miniature class of cubic satellites that USF students and faculty built have a mass of 1kg (~2.2 lb) and are around the size of a softball. SmallSats have a history of use in low Earth orbit, and the team at USF IAE aims to use theirs to research inter-satellite networked communications.

Spaceflight SXRS-3 Patch

Dubbed SXRS-3 by Spaceflight, the launch on January 24 was the company’s first mission of the year and the debut flight of the Sherpa-FX vehicle. Graphic courtesy of Spaceflight Inc.

USF electrical engineering PhD candidate and IAE Senior Research Engineer Peter Jorgensen said the satellites will communicate both with each other and with IAE headquarters.

“Effectively, the network is supposed to behave like the Internet here on the ground,” Jorgensen said. “Something like that doesn’t really exist in space right now.”

Ongoing since August 2017, the project to create this network of SmallSats is titled Articulated Reconnaissance and Communications Expedition (ARCE-1). Before finding a home at IAE, it began at the United States Special Operations Command innovation incubator known as SOFWERX, with Jorgensen as program manager, IAE Executive Director of Programs and Customer Engagements Tim Baxter as co-PI and USF College of Engineering Dean and IAE President and CEO Robert Bishop as principal investigator.

Dean Bishop said the launch on January 24 marked a vital milestone for ARCE-1 and the creation of research opportunities for potentially years to come.

“Having witnessed this project’s progress over the last three and a half years through collaborations with multiple university partners, seeing all three ARCE-1 SmallSats enter orbit was a testament to this mission’s beginnings and its future potential,” he said. “This current success is the result of the intellectual and creative talents of the IAE’s students and staff in tackling tomorrow’s technological endeavors.”

ARCE-1 SmallSat

One of the three ARCE-1 satellites sits beside a permanent marker for scale. While in orbit, it will communicate with the other two ARCE-1 satellites and the USF Institute for Applied Engineering.

A notable local partner to the project is the Florida High Tech Corridor Match Grants Research Program, which has multiplied the impact of ARCE-1 sponsor awards across different phases of the project and is focused on research and student engagement.

While full-time staff engineers worked on the project last year, Jorgensen said that the satellites are built and tested primarily by USF students of various STEM backgrounds employed to join the team.

“Students have been at the center of this project,” he said.

Since ARCE-1 began, more than 20 USF students across most engineering majors have worked on the project in some way, with a maximum student team size of almost a dozen at one point. Currently, the team consists of four USF students who’ve spent the weeks leading up to the January 24 launch completing and testing each of the three satellites.

ARCE-1 Launch Patch

Each ARCE-1 SmallSat is capable of diverse messaging requirements and multiple communication schemes while passing over USF IAE headquarters as illustrated in the ARCE-1 mission patch.

Catherine Wood, a Fall 2020 USF physics alum, joined ARCE-1 in September 2020 and said she joined near the end of the satellites’ physical development during the project’s testing and deployment integration phases.

Wood said she’s always wanted to work in the aerospace industry and that getting hands-on engineering skills and experience from this project as part of her current internship with the U.S. Department of Defense has given her a valuable look at a future in the field.

“This was a perfect and absolutely outstanding experience to have as an undergraduate student and now recent graduate,” she said. “A constellation of small cube satellites built primarily by young college students, then being launched by one of the biggest aerospace companies? It’s a real achievement. It made me feel really proud about what I've been learning and doing at USF, and I’ll carry this experience and what I’ve learned in every aspect of my life.”

David D’Angelo is a recent graduate from a USF mechanical engineering master’s program and joined the IAE team in May 2019. D’Angelo said that building and testing SmallSats has been an interdisciplinary experience and an opportunity to professionally branch out beyond his field. The rigorous process of ensuring each satellite functioned nearly identically and could withstand a suite of tests and simulations — from the force and heat of a rocket launch to power consumption while in orbit — has also made him a more confident engineer.

“Watching our work enter orbit was a great moment to reflect on the culmination of all of our past and present team members’ efforts,” D’Angelo said. “We accomplished something that takes a lot of time and dedication, and seeing that realized was special.”

Also having joined ARCE-1 in May 2019, mechanical engineering graduate student Troy Young said his time at IAE settled his path after graduation and convinced him to switch his master’s thesis focus from mechanical engineering-related research to research in spacecraft guidance navigation and control. Over time, his work on the project evolved from mechanical engineering-based tasks like fabrication and simulations to tasks of various engineering disciplines.

“This project has been about challenging ourselves and branching out into subjects we’ve never thought about or didn’t know existed sometimes,” Young said. “You’re thrown right into the chaos of designing and producing something that needs to work and be a part of a system going into space. It’s been one of the most effective ways I could imagine getting trained as an engineering student.”

With all three SmallSats in orbit, Jorgensen said the team’s next task is to complete an orbital analysis of the satellites’ path around the Earth and use the next several weeks to prepare for the project’s next research phase. Then, they can push software updates to the satellites to expand their functionality.

While this initially includes the ability for each SmallSat to autonomously sense how far it is from a message target — maximizing messaging efficiency — the network could one day provide mobile communication services to locations almost anywhere on the globe.

“The intent would be to expand communications capabilities to less connected areas of the Earth,” Jorgensen said. “For example, if a major disaster happened that wiped out all cell networks and all Internet in a large area, these satellites could theoretically be used for communications from that area.”

Jorgensen said the capabilities of USF IAE’s network will depend on how much support ARCE-1 receives over the years and the overall lifetime of the project.