NASA enlists UF faculty to develop small satellite technology
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Mechanical and aerospace engineering and astronomy faculty members at the University of Florida have been selected to work with NASA’s Langley Research Center on navigation and guiding systems for small satellites.
Norman Fitz-Coy, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, said the instruments developed for this project are based on some of the oldest navigation tools used throughout history.
“‘Attitude’ is the knowledge of your orientation,” Fitz-Coy said. “On a spacecraft, you need to be able to identify your attitude accurately, and you need to be able to change it. So we’re developing two things: a system for gaining attitude knowledge – we call it a ‘star tracker,’ it’s really a modern version of a sextant, like those used by sailors – and a gyroscope to give you the ability to control or reorient your attitude.”
Joining Fitz-Coy on the project are John Conklin, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Steve Eikenberry, a UF Research Foundation professor of astronomy.
“Dr. Eikenberry has a background in optics – the star tracker is a camera, to a degree – and precision instrumentation is definitely Dr. Conklin’s strength,” Fitz-Coy said. He added that his own research focus is in control moment gyroscope (CMG).
Natalie Clark at Langley Research Center and several other NASA scientists will work on the project with UF. Her focus will be on writing algorithms and software for the star tracker system, to integrate it with UF’s technologies.
“NASA used to make big satellites that were very expensive. As the agency focused on Mars research, we found ourselves with fewer resources,” Clark said. “The agency then refocused, producing faster, smaller and less expensive satellites in volume. Now we’re improving on that model by adding sophisticated systems to smaller satellites that can better collect data and fly with better precision than ever before. That’s where this technology comes in.”
The project will receive $200,000 from NASA’s budget over the next two years and is already underway.