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USU plays key role in successful launch of satellite from space station

May 29, 2017

NASA On May 17, the Air Force Research Laboratory successfully deployed its Satellite for High Accuracy Radar Calibration — or SHARC — into a low-Earth orbit from the International Space Station. Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory developed the satellite's flight software, radio interface circuit board, and provided fabrication and assembly expertise for its main subsystems.

LOGAN — When a small defense satellite was launched from the International Space Station recently, a team from Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory gathered to watch the deployment.

The launch was the culmination of some two years of work for the small team that collaborated with the Air Force Research Laboratory to develop the Satellite for High Accuracy Radar Calibration, or SHARC for short. The USU-based lab developed the satellite's flight software, radio interface circuit board, and provided fabrication and assembly expertise for its main subsystems.

While the satellite's systems had been thoroughly tested on Earth and the computer modeling checked and rechecked, the moment of truth was the launch, Ian Karlinsey, software engineer for the Space Dynamics Laboratory, said Tuesday.

"There’s a quiet period after the satellite leaves the International Space Station where there's no radio communication allowed for the safety of ISS and other satellites. So there’s kind of this calm for 30 to 45 minutes where like nothing happens and you’re starting to wonder if the satellite is going to work.

"All of a sudden we get data from the satellite and it's just like everyone high-fives and everyone is just reacting to that moment," Karlinsey said.

In addition to monitoring the deployment of the satellite, which Karlinsey said is roughly the size of two shoeboxes placed end to end but "thinner and maybe a little longer," the team from the Space Dynamics Team traveled to Cape Canaveral, Florida, for the April 18 launch of the Atlas V rocket used to ferry the satellite to the International Space Station.

The Logan-based laboratory developed the SHARC flight software that monitors and controls all aspects of the satellite. The software provides the command and data handling functionality to operate key subsystems such as communications, guidance and navigation, state-of-health monitoring, the electronic power system and telemetry, among others.

The Space Dynamics Laboratory also developed the ground system software used to communicate with the satellite.

The satellite used a specialized electronic circuit board designed and manufactured by the Space Dynamics Laboratory to provide an interface between the line-of-sight radio and the spacecraft electronics.

At any one time, two or three team members were working on the project but as many as 10 engineers and scientists worked on the satellite. This information can then be used to calibrate ground-based radar systems for the Department of Defense.

The team, working under the direction of the Air Force Research Laboratory for the government-industry project, had thoroughly evaluated and tested the satellite, its systems and components. The successful deployment on May 17 was a banner day for all, Karlinsey said.

"We went through all the testing. We went through all the development effort and there’s just kind of this lull of like, 'Is it going to work?' We've done all the testing. We know on the ground that it worked. We simulated the space environment the best we could on the ground.

"When it comes to that actual moment, yeah, it’s very exciting."

According to USU officials, the Satellite for High Accuracy Radar Calibration was developed to demonstrate the capability of actively obtaining data from a small satellite platform to generate more precise positions of satellites at given times.

The Space Dynamics Laboratory is a nonprofit unit of the USU Research Foundation. It has been solving technical challenges faced by the military, science community and industry since 1959.

The laboratory is one of 14 University Affiliated Research Centers that provide and maintain core capabilities for the Department of Defense.