Seen here are Dr. Marcus Holzinger (RECONSO PI) and seven members of Team RECONSO who traveled to New Mexico the weekend of January 19 to compete for $110,000 in Phase B funding from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Not pictured: RECONSO Co-PI, Professor David Spencer and the rest of the student researchers who have worked on this satellite for much of the past 2 years. Check outthis slideshow to see the whole team. Check out these video-taped interviews with the faculty and 2 of the grad students who worked on RECONSO.
For the second time in as many years, a GT-designed satellite has been scrutinized, funded, and approved for launch by the University Nanosatellite Program (UNP-8) of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR).
Graduate student Adam Snow, left, and undergraduate Michael Lucchi, right, had just 20 minutes to make their case for Phase B from the AFOSR. Their reviewers didn't pull any punches.
Announcement of the $110,000 Phase B funding for the RECONnaissance of Space Objects (RECONSO) was made Jan.19 by AFOSR after a panel of aerospace industry and government judges grilled the GT-AE student-led design team.
"They wanted to make sure we'd tested the feasibility of everything, like whether we could actually process everything on our on-board computer," said Johnny Worthy, one of three GT-AE grad students who presented the concept at the Albuquerque, New Mexico competition.
"And the thing is, they really knew their stuff. They knew what components would work, and which ones wouldn't."
The night before their all-important review, members of Team RECONSO made some last-minute tweaks to their satellite.
RECONSO now joins another nanosatellite, Prox 1, as the first two Georgia Tech-built vehicles scheduled for launch into space. Led by GT-AE's Professor David Spencer, Prox 1 is scheduled to lift off aboard SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket sometime in 2016.
"It was a huge milestone," said Dr. Marcus Holzinger, the RECONSO PI who coordinated, coached, and led a team of more than 40 student engineers (from several Georgia Tech schools) during the two years that led up to the Jan. 19 competition.
"They had already put together around 1,500 pages of documentation, so the pressure was on to show core mission functionality in a live hardware-in-the-loop demonstration. They had to prove that all of their systems work together and all of their hardware actually talks to each other. And they nailed it."
Graduate student Johnny Worthy is seen here with the RECONSO satellite, left, and a screen that projected video footage depicting actual space objects into RECONSO's sensors. This set-up allowed students to demonstrate how RECONSO processes visual data. To further prove their point, however, the RECONSO Team gave their reviewers laser pointers that were directed into RECONSO's sightline. As expected, RECONSO detected and cataloged the new "objects."
There were a lot of high-fives and shouts of jubilation immediately after the judges delivered their decision, but the RECONSO team is under no illusions: getting their satellite ready for a real-world launch will be every bit as challenging as designing it for demonstration.
"We already know we need to develop code that will give better inertial bearing (location) accuracy," said Worthy, just days after the announcement. "We're on it."
What is a RECONSO?
Measuring just 20x30x10 centimeters and weighing about 21 pounds, RECONSO is is part of a growing class of small satellites (nanosatellites) that have taken advantage of the miniaturization of modern technology to make space launches less costly and space missions more versatile.
Their size makes these nanosatellites perfect passengers for more traditionally-sized launch vehicles, which require a huge amount of fuel to lift off. Like celestial barnacles, nanosatellites cling to their weighty host until they have arrived in space. That’s when their own flights begin.
RECONSO runs on less power than the average laptop and could easily be mistaken for a cast-off piece of electronics were it not carefully handled and guarded in the Space Systems Design Lab's ultra-hygienic "clean room." Those who work on it must suit-up like surgeons: disposable gloves, a face mask, a hair net, a sterile smock, and a sticky mat to remove dust from shoes.
The RECONSO cubesat is designed to put a low-cost optical payload in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) where it will be able to detect and track new and existing space objects – data that will contribute to the expansion and maintenance of the Space Object Catalog maintained by the Space Surveillance Network (SSN).
Weighing just 21 pounds, RECONSO will take much less fuel to put into space than traditional-sized vehicles.
With a dramatically larger field of vision and a virtually uninterrupted operational schedule, RECONSO will be capable of collecting unprecedented amounts of valuable information for Earth-bound aerospace engineers, like Holzinger, who are studying space situational awareness (SSA).
"Right now, SSN has radar sites as well as space- andbased telescopes set up to gather data, but they are limited -- by their locations, by the weather, by lots of things," he said.
"With RECONSO we can pull in data continuously, every one to two seconds, every day, for six months. And it will all be processed on-board and sent to Earth, where we'll be able to use it to validate models we've developed to track objects in space."
Why do we need to catalog space junk?
According to data collected by the RECONSO team, there are more than 22,000 pieces of space debris in earth's orbit - each one a threat to current space assets such as military, communications, and weather satellites. In 2014, alone, more than 100 collision-avoidance maneuvers were executed to avoid such catastrophes.
The RECONSO mission seeks to remove some of that risk by cataloging the location of debris as small as 10 centimeters in diameter -- a size that is big enough to do serious damage. Information collected about the location and size of these objects will be transmitted to Earth where it can be used to predict the orbital paths.
"That's information that is becoming increasingly important to industry, government and the military. Projects like RECONSO are revolutionizing our capabilities when it comes to space situational awareness," said Adam Snow, the graduate student who served as the RECONSO project manager.
"Instead of spending millions of dollars launching a single, very capable satellite to explore space, we can now send a constellation of much smaller satellites that are capable of mimicking larger spacecrafts but are also more redundant."
An update on the Prox-1 Satellite
Prox-1 PI (and RECONSO Co-PI) Professor David Spencer
In July, we reported on another GT-AE satellite-in-waiting, the Prox 1. The following is an update on its progress toward a May 2016 launch.
The Prox 1 flight team is currently performing an initial integration of the spacecraft in preparation for "Day in the Life" testing, according to PI Professor David Spencer.
"That's where the spacecraft exercises all of the key functions in the laboratory that will be needed in flight," he explained.
After that the team will finalize the spacecraft configuration and complete the flight software prior to shipment to the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico for environmental testing and launch preparation.
"Once on orbit, Prox-1 will deploy a smaller spacecraft, the LightSail-B CubeSat, developed by the Planetary Society. Prox-1 will demonstrate automated trajectory control relative to LightSail-B using infrared imaging to identify LightSail-B against the background of space," he said.
Prox-1 is funded through the Air Force Office of Scientific Research/Air Force Research Laboratory University Nanosatellite Program. There are currently 35 undergraduate and graduate students supporting the Prox-1 project.