Plan to launch first GW-made satellite gets off the ground

Updated: Oct. 2, 2017 at 4:35 p.m.

A team of student engineers is working to blast the first GW-made satellite into orbit by 2019.

The project, publicly announced last month, will use propulsion technology developed in the mechanical and aerospace engineering department to build a satellite in the Science and Engineering Hall and eventually launch it into space, where it will take photos and collect data on the wetlands of Costa Rica. The team’s student leader said launching a satellite – using GW-developed technology – would be an engineering breakthrough for the University.

The team held an information session Thursday to announce the plan in hopes of recruiting about 60 students to help with the project.

The group, which currently has about 25 members, received approval from NASA to build the instrument and partnered with the U.S. Naval Academy and Tecnológico de Costa Rica University. Once launched, students said the satellite will monitor geographic features in Costa Rica, measuring water and air temperature while snapping photos of the landscape to track changes over time.

Jonathan Kolbeck, a doctoral candidate in the mechanical and aerospace engineering department and one of the project’s managers, said the satellite plan was first brought up last year during a discussion about expanding the use of the University’s propulsion systems — technology used to propel objects forward.

“The significance is of course that we’re building our own satellite, it’s our very first one,” Kolbeck said. “That’s a really cool opportunity to get GW’s name in that field.”

He said researchers have already used the technology on projects with the Naval Academy and NASA so “the next step would be for us to have our own CubeSat.”

A CubeSat is a small satellite designed to be more affordable for researchers. CubeSats are generally used for scientific investigations or to demonstrate new technology, according to NASA’s website.

Kolbeck wrote the original project proposal with Michael Keidar, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and submitted it to NASA about a year ago, he said. The satellite will be built on site at SEH, with other universities contributing their technology and testing facilities to the project, he added.

Kolbeck said the project’s team has grown from eight to 25 students since organizers began asking faculty who could help last summer. The team posted positions on Handshake, the University’s job search platform, last month in an attempt to recruit more students for the effort.

NASA and other agencies that Kolbeck declined to name will provide the $100,000 needed to build and launch the satellite, he said.

He said the team also included working with D.C. public school students as part of its proposal to NASA and project members reached out to the School Without Walls, a specialized public high school on G Street, to gauge their interest.

Kolbeck said the team is still deciding how to include high school students in its plans, but the close proximity of the school to GW made its students natural partners.

“We wanted to give something back to the community,” he said. “We want to involve D.C. public schools and other schools as much as we can.”

This will be the first time the University has launched a satellite and will partner with other universities to share technology and data, which could benefit future research, Kolbeck said. He said the project will teach students about Earth observation and the instrument will take in geographic data, but its main goal is to test the renowned propulsion technology that was developed in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Jin Kang, an assistant professor in the aerospace engineering department at the U.S. Naval Academy and a mentor on the project, said he originally partnered with GW to test their propulsion units on different kinds of satellites.

He said CubeSats are an easy instrument for students to practice data collection on because they are relatively small and easy to launch multiple times, which is helpful because data can be lost in the collection process.

“I think it’s great that George Washington University is sort of taking on their own CubeSat as well and continuing to develop their technology off of that,” Kang said.

Allegra Farrar, a student majoring in mechanical engineering, said she first heard about the project in March and wanted to get involved to be a part of the experience of building GW’s first satellite.

“It gives me the opportunity to learn even more than I’m learning now because exposure is the opportunity to know what I might want to do in the future,” she said. “That’s the greatest gift that this project has given me.”

Katherine Abughazaleh contributed to reporting.

This post was updated to reflect the following corrections:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that the satellite will be launched from Cost Rica. It will be launched from within the United States and take photos and collect data only when it orbits above Costa Rica. The Hatchet also incorrectly reported that the team’s membership grew when it posted open positions on Handshake. The team recruited new members over the summer through conversations with faculty and only recently posted available positions on the job search platform. We regret these errors.

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