After three years of work, University of Washington students have nearly
completed the world’s smallest self-propelled satellite and are preparing
to deliver it to the Air Force and NASA for launch.

The nanosatellite, dubbed “Dawgstar”
[] and tentatively
scheduled for launch from the Space Shuttle in early 2003, will take
samples from the Earth’s ionosphere and conduct experiments in formation
flying with two other satellites, an ability scientists say is vital for
the next generation of space endeavors.

But one of the best parts of the project is that students played a primary
role in designing and building the compact piece of space hardware,
according to Assistant Professor Mark Campbell, coordinator of the effort.

“It’s very unusual for students, particularly undergraduates, to have an
opportunity to work on something that is actually going into space,” said
Campbell, who recently left the UW for Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.,
and is coordinating the final stages of the project long-distance. “This
isn’t a class exercise — it’s the real thing and they’re getting great
experience by being part of it.”

The nanosatellite project is intended to encourage universities to work
together to explore low-cost alternatives to large, expensive satellites.
Nanosatellites, because of their small size, are cheaper to build.
Their low weight makes for less expensive launches — a major factor,
considering that the cost of a Space Shuttle launch starts at about
$1 million. Launches aboard unmanned vehicles are even costlier.

Dawgstar resembles a small six-sided box, measuring 18 inches across
and 12 inches high, and weighing less than 40 pounds. It will fly with
companion satellites from Utah State University and Virginia Tech.
Dawgstar, with the aid of eight tiny plasma thrusters, is the primary
craft capable of maneuvering itself. The Virginia Tech craft, which is
larger than Dawgstar, will fly with two thrusters built by the UW team,
providing partial mobility. The mission’s two main objectives are:

  1. Conducting a scientific study of disturbances in the Earth’s
    ionosphere. Such disturbances can cause significant disruption in
    communications among networked satellites and with sites on the
    ground. A better understanding of ionospheric disturbances will be
    essential in managing groups of nanosatellites in Earth orbit and
    operating space-based radar systems.

  2. Performing experiments in precision formation flying with the
    satellites from Utah State and Virginia Tech. The satellites will
    fly about one to three miles apart and will attempt to maneuver in
    concert to tolerances of 33 feet or less. The ability of small
    satellites to fly in precise formation could make possible a wide
    array of new applications, including a next-generation Internet,
    space-based radar and ultra-powerful space telescopes.

The project culminates three years of work by more than 75 undergraduate
and graduate students and is being funded through grants from the Air
Force, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration. The launch is being coordinated
through the Air Force Space Test Program.

For more information, contact Campbell at .

High resolution, color images of Dawgstar are available on the Web. For
shots of UW Aeronautics and Astronautics senior Shane Gillett working
on the nanosatellite in a “clean room” on campus check: (72KB)

and (71KB)

A close-up of one of the plasma thrusters firing during a test can be
seen at: (78KB)