USC’s 1st Satellite, a Triple Cubesat, Will Demonstrate Cargo-Tracking Concept

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The University of Southern California (USC)'s Aeneas cubesat project. Credit: USC
The University of Southern California (USC)’s Aeneas cubesat project. Credit: USC

WASHINGTON — A group of astronautical engineering students at the University of Southern California (USC) are building the school’s first satellite, which is expected to launch early next year to demonstrate a new cargo container-tracking capability for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

USC’s Space Engineering Research Center received funding in September from several U.S. government agencies, including the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Operationally Responsive Space Office, for a Cubesat mission called Aeneas, after the Trojan demigod.

Cubesats, spacecraft measuring 10 centimeters on each side and weighing all of 1 kilogram, were pioneered by California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and Stanford University. Measuring 30 centimeters long, Aeneas is a triple Cubesat — essentially three individual Cubesats combined into one. The tiny spacecraft will be launched from a canister called a Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer, which typically launches as a secondary payload.

While commercial firms already offer satellite-based cargo tracking services, the low Earth orbiting Aeneas design is far smaller and uses different technologies that will enable use of smaller receivers on the ground that require less power, David Barnhart, the Space Engineering Research Center’s associate director, said in a Feb. 12 interview. USC is partnered for the cargo tracking demonstration with iControl Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., which will provide its off-the-shelf signal receivers.

“We’re trying to demonstrate some different technologies,” Barnhart said. “We’re trying to miniaturize things and make things at a lower cost.”

About 20 of the Space Engineering Research Center’s 80 students are involved with the Aeneas project. The satellite, expected to be completed this summer, is slated to launch in early 2011.

Barnard would not say what rocket will be used, or identify the government agency sponsoring the launch. He also declined to say how much government funding USC received for the project.

Despite its Los Angeles location, USC is a relative newcomer to the world of academic satellite and rocket development programs. The school’s astronautical engineering department was established in 2003. Barnhart joined three years later, following a career that included work on the classified Misty reconnaissance satellites, he said.

Barnhart said his approach has been to get students hands-on experience with a variety of real space hardware development programs. In addition to Aeneas, students at the Space Engineering Research Center also are working on two other major projects: a lunar lander prototype dubbed Leapfrog and a solid-propelled rocket the school hopes will reach space with a 1-kilogram payload by the end of the year, Barnhart said.

While Barnhart would not say what space projects he and his students will next pursue, he indicated the university has lofty goals for its space program. The Space Engineering Research Center hopes to one day emulate the United Kingdom’s University of Surrey, which, along with its commercial spin-off Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., has been a pioneer in miniaturizing satellite technologies and has launched more than 30 satellites since 1981.