Hawai‘i, We Have Liftoff
Story by Dennis Hollier
Photos by Matt Mallams
The ill-fated CubeSat, the culmination of thousands of hours of work by dozens of UH students, would have been the first Hawai‘i-built satellite to go into orbit. Now, seven years after the debacle in Kazakhstan and five generations of CubeSats later, Wayne Shiroma and a new team of students are going to try again. This fall their latest satellite, Ho‘oponopono, will piggyback on a NASA launch out of Cape Canaveral. At roughly the size of a shoebox, Ho‘oponopono will be three times as large as its predecessor and carry sophisticated communications and radar calibration technology. Whether it will be the first Hawai‘i satellite in orbit remains to be seen.
Shiroma, chairman of the Department of Electrical Engineering, started the Hawai‘i program in 2002 and has led it since. CubeSat technology was, he says, conceived by two Stanford professors, Jordi Puig-Suare and Bob Twiggs. “Twiggs had a conception of students building a satellite and having it launched within their educational lifetimes,” Shiroma says. Twiggs also established the original dimensions of the satellite: a ten-centimeter cube. “He was standing outside a corner drugstore,” says Shiroma, “and saw someone walk by with a Beanie Baby box and thought, ‘That’s about the right size for the satellite that I think we should start building.’” In UH’s small satellite program, students design, build, test and manage the satellite. They even select its mission. “Anything goes,” Shiroma says. “That’s the beauty of it. Students can conceive of any mission they want. Then, rather than relying on NASA or any other big satellite developer, they can build their own project; they can manage their own budgets and timelines.”
Shiroma speaks of his students with evident pride. He points out, for example, that Larry Martin, a grad student now serving as program manager for the Ho‘oponopono project, was selected as student of the year by the national honor society for electrical engineers because of his undergraduate work on Ho‘oponopono. Shiroma gets even more emotional when he talks about the effect the program has had on systems engineer Nick Fisher. “Larry was always good with his grades,” Shiroma says. “He could do the traditional lecture and textbook model. Nick, once, was not. I hope I’m not embarrassing him, but he didn’t have the best grades in traditional classes. But then we put him in charge as the systems engineer—the chief engineer. All of a sudden there was a whole paradigm shift because now he knows he’s in charge of a team, he’s in charge of a $200,000 budget. More importantly, he’s not just learning engineering; he’s actually doing engineering.”
Not surprisingly, the Hawai‘i CubeSat students took their opportunity seriously and designed a satellite that would fulfill a need. “This is a C-band radar calibration satellite,” Fisher explains. “There are C-band radar stations all over the globe—more than eighty in all—whose primary purpose is to track objects in space. That could be a launch vehicle, a rocket going into space or a satellite, but operators need to know very accurately where it is.” To help calibrate these stations, Ho‘oponopono carries a transponder (which amplifies and responds to the tracking station signals) and a space-grade GPS to precisely determine its own position. By comparing the two sets of data, the C-band stations can check their accuracy.
This isn’t just a science experiment, says Martin; it has real-world application. “There are just two radar calibration satellites in orbit right now, one of which is approaching twenty years past its life expectancy and has been failing—shutting down and turning back on, things like that. So they’re looking for a replacement. What we’re doing as a student team isn’t coming up with a replacement itself, but rather something to supplement these satellites. Our solution is over sixty times smaller and about a hundred times cheaper than RadCal, one of those satellites currently in orbit.”
That’s one of the main advantages of micro-satellites like CubeSat. Although the primary purpose of CubeSat is to prepare students for careers in the graying aerospace industry (and industry representatives are definitely interested), the program is more broadly a demonstration of the potential of nano-satellites. CubeSats can be built and launched cheaply and quickly, and universities and other scientific organizations have come up with hundreds of applications for them. “There have been all kinds of missions,” Shiroma says. “Some have been scientific, like collecting weather data. Others have a camera on board so you can take images over various parts of the Earth. Others simply demonstrate a new type of technology. … By putting it into something very inexpensive, they can test it.” That’s the promise of CubeSat.
Beyond all these practical considerations, there’s something poetic about the UH CubeSat. “Ho‘oponopono is a Hawaiian tradition,” Martin says, “a Hawaiian word meaning ‘to make things right.’ We’re using that as an analogy, because the whole process of calibration is to make something right.”
If all goes well, maybe Ho‘oponopono can make right that disaster of seven years ago in the high desert of Kazakhstan.
HSFL, which was created in 2007, is working in collaboration with the Air Force’s Space and Missile System Center’s Operationally Responsive Space Office (or ORS among space professionals, who speak largely in acronyms). What attracted the eye of the US military? It was LEONIDAS, the Low Earth Orbit Nano-satellite Integrated Defense Autonomous System. As cloak-and-dagger as that might sound, LEONIDAS isn’t some secret weapons program; it’s an ambitious plan to make UH the only university in the world with the capability to design, build and launch spacecraft. Hawai‘iSat 1 will be the guinea pig.
Like Ho’oponopono, Hawai‘iSat 1 is being designed, built and tested mostly by students, making it a critical part of HSFL’s mission to train young engineers like Jeremy Chan. Chan was a high school dropout who worked as a computer geek for several years before getting his GED and going to Kapi‘olani Community College. He spent his whole undergrad and grad school terms in HSFL before actually getting hired as a sensor and communications expert. Something similar is happening at Kaua‘i Community College, which will serve as ground control for Hawai‘iSat 1. HSFL director Luke Flynn says, “There are a lot of jobs at the Pacific Missile Range to do telemetry sort of work. So training students at Kaua‘i CC made a lot of sense.”
Training aside, Hawai‘iSat 1 has a scientific mission. “The satellite will be flying with a remote sensing instrument that was developed by faculty here at UH,” says Flynn. “It’s going to take thermal, or heat, images of the Earth’s surface. We’re going to use it for taking pictures of the Hawaiian Islands and monitoring sea surface temperatures, which are important because we can tell when there’s going to be an El Niño event, among other things.” Also like Ho‘oponopono, Hawai‘iSat 1 will demonstrate the utility of small, cheap satellites. Major satellites are expensive, says professor and systems engineer Eric Pilger, because manufacturers must build them so well that they can’t fail. “One of the solutions,” he says, “is to not have to change the hardware for twenty years. But that stuff is expensive.” Small satellites like Hawai‘iSat 1 don’t have that problem; they can use components that are COTS—commercial, off the shelf—albeit sometimes heavily modified.
But what makes HSFL stand out isn’t its satellite-building prowess only. There are already more than 120 universities—and at least a few high schools—building CubeSats. This has created a kind of bottleneck because even with piggyback launches there just aren’t many opportunities to get these satellites into orbit. For HSFL that’s an opportunity. The critical element of the LEONIDAS program is for HSFL to develop the capacity to launch its own spacecraft. This fall, they plan to send Hawai‘iSat 1 into space on a new rocket able to carry at least 165 kilograms—enough to put Hawai’iSat 1 and a clutch of CubeSats into orbit. The best part: The launch site will be right here in Hawai‘i, at the Barking Sands Pacific Missile Range on Kaua‘i.
Hawai‘i launches will also be a comparative bargain, “about $15 million a launch,” says Flynn. “That’s about half the price to put something that size in orbit today. And, of course, the satellites themselves are a lot less expensive than that—at least the one we’ve got.” HSFL has already generated a raft of technology that could have a major effect on space research, like software that will make it easier to manage space operations. But it’s the launch capability that puts UH into an elite club. There aren’t many organizations that can put spacecraft into orbit, especially the low-budget, experimental satellites that universities are building. “We’re talking the fingers of one hand here,” Pilger says with a grin. “So if the market explodes, we’re going to be in demand for the next ten years, at least.”
That doesn’t mean HSFL will become a cash cow for the university, says Flynn, but it could become a “research cow.” “If we can launch regularly and we can bring in regular business that helps pay for the launch, then just like the observatories, maybe we can have a percentage that’s our own.” That could be the seed money for even more space science at UH or even for other researchers who want to test their theories in space. Perhaps one day it won’t only be engineers, but environmental scientists or oceanographers helping to develop satellites for HSFL.