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UNH Satellite Program: A Jigsaw Puzzle Beginning To Take Shape
DURHAM, N.H. -- Faced with a $4 million high-tech jigsaw puzzle, University of New Hampshire students are learning that making the pieces is one thing -- getting them to fit and work together are quite another.

Once completed, the "picture" will be the first satellite completely designed and constructed by UNH faculty, staff and students. CATSAT -- Cooperative Astrophysics and Technology SATellite --- is scheduled by early 2000 to be a working, signaling, fully-powered spacecraft ready for launch.

Funded by NASA, CATSAT will probe the mysteries of gamma-ray and X-ray bursts, the same phenomena that caused the most violent explosion ever observed and made international headlines last spring. The project undertaken by UNH's Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space (EOS) and the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, in cooperation with England's University of Leicester, will show that a research satellite can be designed, built and operated utilizing students and teaching faculty for a fraction of the cost of one built by traditional means.

UNH is one of only three institutions taking part in the NASA program, which is administered through the Universities Space Research Association. A University of Colorado satellite was recently launched, and one constructed by Boston University will be on the launch pad in November.

Major milestones
Only two years after UNH was awarded funding, the CATSAT project has reached major milestones. According to Ken Levenson, research engineer and associate program director, the spacecraft frame -- built by a team led by Mark Granoff, senior research project engineer -- was successfully tested in January at Lockheed Sanders. "That was a major milestone," says Levenson.

This summer, the two dozen students working on the project have been testing engineering models of CATSAT components designed and built by past students in preparation for building actual flight models.

The next step is the jigsaw puzzle phase -- making individual components fit and work together. And like a jigsaw puzzle, making them fit sometimes takes a few tries and a few different angles. "Making the electronic circuit is half the battle," admits Levenson. "The other half is integrating all these components."

A possible problem might be ground loops, when a circuit works fine by itself, but malfunctions when partnered with another circuit. Then there's the noise problem: wires, circuit boards and other gadgetry can sometimes act as antennae, creating electronic noise that interferes with the satellite signal.

Once the components work smoothly as a system, there's the question of how they'll physically fit into the spacecraft frame. A high quality plywood twin has been built so students and staff can study where cable access points must be added, where panels will be fixed and in what order components -- their shapes also duplicated in wood -- must be placed within the shell. Computer-aided design also is being used.

Levenson admits the CATSAT project has been learning experience for more seasoned faculty and staff as well as students. Levenson and David Forrest, Space Science Center research associate professor and principal CATSAT investigator, are the two faculty and staff members working full-time on the project and collaborating with other contributing faculty and staff.

"You could say it's the highlight of my career," says Forrest, who has been at UNH for more than 25 years. "This is what I've been training to do, handling the technical direction this project demands."

Says Levenson: "The complicated science instrumentation is the easier part, because we've done it many times before at UNH, but because the spacecraft side of a project has never been done at UNH, or really any university outside of a few, it's been an incredible learning curve. The spacecraft issues alone include the frame, the solar panels, attitude control and communications."

In coming weeks, students and staff will concentrate on the attitude determination control systems and the satellite power system as well as thermal blankets and coatings, which ensure the spacecraft stays at proper working temperatures.

A ground-based station also has been set up at the group's headquarters in Morse Hall. Earlier this summer, students communicated with orbiting satellites to show the UNH team will be capable of contacting CATSAT.

One lingering concern for Forrest remains the lack of a designated launch vehicle. The team still waits for NASA to determine which rocket will carry CATSAT into space, or whether the satellite instead will be dropped from a plane on its way into orbit.

"It's like making a slipcover, and not knowing what kind of chair you have," says Forrest, who remains optimistic nevertheless. After two years' work, "our payload is in amazingly good shape. It's been incredibly tough, but we have reason to be pleased with ourselves."

By Carmelle Druchniak
UNH News Bureau