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Capitol Students and Faculty Launch Satellite Payload Into Space

“Two minutes,” says Carl Hansen, noting the time since the launch of a sounding rocket carrying Capitol Technology University’s Project Hermes payload from NASA Wallops Flight Facility.

Almost overlapping, Ben Serano says, “Iridium signal,” chronicling launch events as they occur.

It is just after 6am on August 12. Eagerly anticipating the acquisition of signal from a payload traveling about 5000 mph overhead, Capitol students and faculty sit in or pace around a tent containing their mobile command center. After almost two years of building, testing, and refining their system, the team has arrived at a critical moment. Soon they will learn whether their concept will work in the environment it was designed for: space.

“It’ll be around 3, what, 3:30?” asks Aaron Bush, student team lead of the project. Another team member confirms, citing the extensive tests that the team conducted on ground during the previous months. They mapped out launch events exactly.

“This is nerve-wracking,” someone mutters.

Three minutes, twenty five seconds, Three minutes and thirty seconds.

“We got it! We got the A!” shouts Anh Ho as the enter team erupts in a victory cheer and hugs abound. (Watch the full video here.)

A new approach to satellite communications

Project Hermes began nearly two years ago, when Professor Rishabh Maharaja challenged students in his Introduction to Space class to brainstorm a payload concept for a high altitude balloon flight and to help develop a method for communicating with the payload in real time. Capitol had recently forged a partnership with the University of Maryland to conduct such a flight in the spring of 2014.

Building off a concept put forward by Maharaja, the students decided to develop a method whereby the payload could talk internally and wirelessly using TCP/IP (standard internet protocol) compliant devices. Maharaja proposed using the commercial Iridium communications network to establish communications.

“Each satellite has electronics that are communicating internally on what is called a system bus,” explains Maharaja. "So this particular experiment is to validate a wireless system bus so that different components can interact via an internal network.” The idea proposed by Maharaja was to create a TCP/IP protocol-compatible bus so that devices that are TCP/IP complaint could be used for the project. These compatible devices would be on the ground and on the payload.

Jeff Williams (’16), one of the original students on the team (and one of two interns funded by the Maryland Space Grant Consortium’s Balloon Payload Program), describes what the Project Hermes system bus enables. “With this system, you can talk to your satellite whenever you want, wherever you want, on any internet-capable device.” They set out to create 24/7 coverage with a mobile ground station. This means that one has the potential to communicate at any time with their payload or satellite without scheduling support.

The team of students did some research and found devices that could turn a standard smartphone into a satellite phone, reducing the cost of the eventual payload. This smartphone-turned-satphone would be the heart of the satellite payload and its communications process. Looking towards the balloon launch in the spring, they downloaded and altered commercially available phone applications to automate certain processes. Using this, they would send a command to the phone to tell it to take a picture. They used commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products to reduce costs and give plug-and-play capabilities so that they did not need to develop new hardware.

Although the class ended and some team members graduated or moved on to other things, Project Hermes continued. New members came aboard, including Carl Hansen (’16). Driven by passion rather than grades, the team was ready for an April launch.

New possibilities unfold

At first, the team did not know how groundbreaking the concept was. Aaron Bush (’15), another original team member and Balloon Payload Program intern, says that it was originally a byproduct of the development process. “That was just the way we operated our device; we didn’t think anything of it.” But when the team told their University of Maryland collaborators in the program that they could use their smartphones to send commands, receive telemetry, and even take a photo of the landing site remotely, the other participants were excited about the possibilities.

The communication concept worked! Says Williams, “[The Balloon Payload Program’s] tracking system was based on ham radios, which is based on ground antennas, which means that below a certain altitude you don’t really get any tracking data. What they’ve had to do in the past was to look for it, searching on the ground. They didn’t know its exact location. With our project, we knew its exact location where it landed, and it made finding it a breeze.” For the first test, Carl also tracked the payload using the secondary HAM Radio system.

With (3) successful near space concept validations under their belts, the Project Hermes team looked towards the future. Space was the next goal, but several hurdles remained. To gain experience in launching a payload into space, the AE department sent two students, Bush and Hansen, to the RockOn workshop, held in June 2014 at Wallops Flight Facility. Students participating in RockOn build a payload over the course of a week of long days spent soldering, building, coding, and more. The two students had a great experience.

The Colorado Space Grant Consortium puts on this workshop in addition to two follow-on programs: RockSat-C and RockSat-X. The intent of the program is for students to begin with RockOn and then progress through RockSat-C and finally do RockSat-X. Capitol’s students realized during the description of the programs, however, that RockSat-X was what they needed to test their payload most effectively. It would also be the most difficult program to get into.

Bush explains the need to test Hermes with RockSat-X instead of RockSat-C: “The skin sheds on the rocket and exposes all the payloads to space. It’s stabilized, and you can do whatever you want with your payload, within NASA’s limitations. It’s the best testing platform that we have available to us.”

According to Maharaja, “X is the most comprehensive and difficult program. With X, you have to meet strict RockSat-X and NASA requirements.”

The road to RockSat-X

Once Bush and Hansen came back to campus for classes in the fall of 2014, they recommended the RockSat-X program, and the department sought funding to help them apply for the program and get a space on the summer 2015 launch. The team recruited Ben Serano (’18) for integration and testing, and Carlos Del Cid (’16) for power needs. Another later addition in January 2015 was Anh Ho (’16), who would help the team with programming and automation. The team also recruited Dylan Rankin, a freshman mechanical engineering major from UMBC, and Daniel Bottner, a mechanical engineering consultant, to supplement the team on a collaborative basis for mechanical and fabrication needs.

The team submitted their intent-to-fly form to the Colorado Space Grant Consortium (CSGC) in September 2014, and was selected for the first round. This began a long process of highly technical design reviews to ensure that the Capitol team was meeting the program requirements.

Carlos Del Cid, the team’s electrical engineer, designed a method to kick-start the system during the flight with only minimal use of the provided power. “I used vinegar and baking soda to make sure that it had just the right amount of acidity so it could eat through the copper and create the circuit.” This allowed the payload to be independent of the rocket’s internal power system, enabling the team to work around launchpad restrictions and constraints on battery use.

After passing through the reviews with the RockSat-X program leaders and continuing to conduct ground tests and high-altitude balloon launch validations, the team was prepared to visit Wallops for a June RockSat-X integration and test process.

Only days before that key milestone, they found themselves facing a hurdle. The original casing as designed would not be able to meet the NASA requirements. The team called Bottner for an emergency meeting and drove to his house to refabricate the satellite from the ground up with the correct measurements and weight requirements.

Bottner worked tirelessly with the rest of the team. “The initial build was 4 or 5 hours, and then finishing the structure out was 12 hours,” says Bottner, who used part of his wife’s yoga mat in the final structure. “We had until Saturday night. I let them out of there at midnight on Saturday night.” By the Monday morning test, the satellite was within specifications and the weight budget and passed the final round of testing. The team was ready.

Jesse Austin, from the CSGC, was impressed with the team. “The [Capitol Technology University] team was always very eager to perform as well as they could,” he says. “They were receptive to feedback, and were extremely motivated. They were eager to demonstrate their abilities, and I am very happy with the design they provided.”

Ready, set...

As the launch date approached, the team did not rest. They wanted to ensure that all of their systems would operate as intended. Ben Serano, who originally saw his role as basic integration and testing support as a Balloon Payload Program intern, became much more involved with Project Hermes as the August launch drew closer. “We tested every day save for Sundays for three hours a day for more than a month until launch,” Serano recounts.

The team’s electromechanical consultant and fabrication expert, Daniel Bottner, says, “Every evening we’d split the payload up into multiple pieces. Each person would take their piece and modify it so that the next day we could test a new system.” The team members were happy to work this hard to achieve their goals.

Serano says, “I slept with this payload. It was in my dorm room almost every night. So I have a personal connection with this payload. I’m like the babysitter, or the dad.”

Originally scheduled for Tuesday, August 11, the launch was delayed because of inclement weather. Undeterred, the team prepared for the August 12 launch. After watching the launch, most teams began discussing breakfast plans because their job was over. They would most likely not receive data from the payloads for approximately two weeks. But Capitol’s team ran to their mobile command center (a tent) and focused on their jobs. “They must have thought we were crazy,” says Aaron Bush.

Because of the limited time window and available bandwidth, Anh Ho programmed the phone to send down simple telemetry: the alphabet. At 3 minutes and 30 seconds into the launch, precisely when the team calculated they would receive telemetry, they received the ‘A.’ Before the payload lost signal, it went from ‘A’ all the way to ‘Y.’ They had succeeded. The team was able to also send a command in the limited communication window and they succeeded. Aaron Bush used his smartwatch to send a command, thus demonstrating the versatility of the project. Due to the sub-orbital nature of the flight, the team had a limited communications window.

The Capitol difference

Capitol was the smallest team participating in the RockSat-X program this year, with six students, a professor, and a consultant. By comparison, some schools had 40 students and 10 professors working on their projects, some of whom have been working with RockSat-X for years. Bush notes the Capitol difference, however. “We were still better suited because of what we’re learning here. A lot of our professors work or have worked in the industry. We learn about missions here. We learn about the whole cycle, developing and designing spacecraft. Even though it was our first time there, we were already kind of ahead of the game.”

Maharaja notes another critical difference between Capitol and some of the other schools. “All of the other teams had tremendously large sponsors. Our counterparts had machine shops that we didn’t have access to. We had a computer desk, a kitchen table, a highly motivated team, vinegar and olive oil.”

A week after the launch, most of the team gathers in a conference room back on Capitol’s campus. They gather around the beaten payload, which still smells of seawater from when the rocket splashed down after reentry, chatting in technical speak and laughing with each other about their recent success. The students and faculty are eager to talk about the project and praise their fellow teammates’ contributions and accomplishments, often talking more about each other than about themselves.

Student team lead Aaron Bush is effusive about his teammates’ accomplishments, rattling off their names and talking about how they would do their primary tasks in their spare time. “Each one of us was a part of Hermes, and we stayed with it because of passion.” Beyond that, Bush says that in two years they haven’t held a single morale event. “We didn’t have pizza parties, we didn’t go bowling, we didn’t do anything. We got together and we worked. And it was because we liked it. We wanted to succeed.”

Professor Maharaja echoes this sentiment. “As faculty, we can say things, but it’s up to the students to take up the mantle and actually do it. I’m very proud of my team because each individual stepped up. As Project Hermes lead, drawing from my experience with NASA, I had to make certain calls, and the system had to be modified (from software changes, to power requirement changes, to structural changes). I am very happy that each student complied, stepped up and did their part to ensure mission success."

Maharaja and his team proudly note several achievements of Project Hermes. Hermes is the first in the world to establish a Wi-Fi-based system bus in space, the first to pair an Android smartphone to their iridium network-based WiFi hotspot to act as the main processor board, the first to use Google Play applications such as various Iridium and Android automation apps for flight software, the first to use internet-enabled devices such as a smartphone and a smartwatch as the direct Telemetry and Command Systems, and the first to fly an Iridium based WiFi Hotspot Modem in space.

Next, Maharaja hopes to finalize the full system bus and seek partners to help the Project Hermes team bring the system to the industry. In the meantime, four of the students went to Marshall Space Flight Center on the 1st of September 2015 for the Aerospace Quality Assurance Workshop, where they presented at a poster session to demonstrate to seasoned industry professionals what lessons they have learned from this process. Capitol Technology University is proud to be represented by these outstanding students.