University of Arizona students have built a cubesat to demonstrate what they believe will be the answer to fast, low-cost space communications and data transmission for small satellites.
The two-tone antenna, which lends credence to the communication device’s beach ball equation, launches in a stowed and folded configuration. Once in Soil orbit, the antenna will be inflated using a combination of helium and argon, increasing the initial surface area to provide higher downlink speeds.
The cube sat – “CatSat”, as the students have dubbed it – will serve a dual purpose in addition to its new antenna test. Instruments opposite the beach ball antenna will probe Earth’s ionosphere to study the propagation and changes of high-frequency radio signals above the atmosphere. Together with other onboard components, CatSat’s instruments will send down high-resolution images of our planet at speeds previously unattainable by similar-sized cubesats.
Related: Cubesats: small payloads, huge benefits for space exploration
Hilliard Paige, a systems engineering student at the University of Arizona and CatSat’s chief systems engineer, sees the antenna concept as a signpost for future missions. “After a successful launch, this inflatable antenna will be the first of its kind in space,” she said in a online message (opens in new tab) from the university.
“The technology being demonstrated by CatSat opens the door to the possibility of future lunar, planetary and deep-space missions using cubesats,” reiterated Chris Walker, a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona.
Through the University of Arizona’s commercialization efforts through Tech Launch Arizona, Walker co-founded a company called Freefall Aerospace, which developed the beach ball antenna. Walker was also one of the University of Arizona faculty who submitted the original CatSat proposal to NASA in 2019 under the agency’s Cubesat Launch Initiative.
That proposal was approved by NASA and CatSat was assigned a launch vehicle – a Firefly Aerospace Alpha missile, which will lift off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California and deliver the tiny satellite into a sun-synchronous orbit 340 miles high (547 kilometers). If successful, CatSat’s beach ball antenna will beam down near real-time images of Earth.
CatSat does not yet have a target launch date, although one is expected to come later this year, University of Arizona officials said.
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