Up, up and away


WMU engineering students sent up a high-altitude balloon carrying a camera that captured this view of Earth.

Western engineering students want to launch stuff. Lots of stuff. It’s the Western Aerospace Launch Initiative and its members plan to design, build, test and launch a CubeSat into outer space. It would be southwest Michigan’s first satellite.

What’s a CubeSat? Picture a 10-centimeter cube – about the size of a grapefruit – with a weight of about 3 pounds. You’re probably wondering what you can fit in such a small space. Plenty. A power system (think solar panels and batteries).  A communication system to be able to talk with the satellite.  And a payload -- in this case a camera to take photos of the Earth.

The organization is raising money to build a satellite that will be launched by NASA and orbit the Earth. The satellite will take photos using a control system that allows them to point the satellite at specific locations and share photos. CubeSats can be sent into orbit in one of two ways.  NASA will allow them to hitch a ride on a large launch vehicle when they have extra room.  Or they can be transported in a resupply mission to the International Space Station and then launched from there on a NanoRack -- essentially a T-shirt cannon that ejects the satellite into space.

CubeSats typically burn up in the atmosphere in about five to 12 months in orbit.

 “We are excited about the possibility of launching southwest Michigan’s first satellite,” said Nagual Simmons, a senior from Kalamazoo and vice president of the Western Aerospace Launch Initiative.

He said the student organization is open to new members. “It takes multiple disciplines to build a satellite,” he said. Students involved represent computer engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering and aerospace engineering.

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Students prepare to launch a balloon into space.

“It’s a long-term project so there’s still time to get involved,” Simmons said. He said it likely will take more than a year until launch.  The project also has a hefty price tag.  Students need to raise about $100,000 for the sophisticated equipment. The group recently kicked off a fundraising campaign seeking individual donors, local businesses and corporate sponsors to help with the costs.

In the meantime, students will be launching high-altitude balloons and model rockets to test components and materials.

They also will be visiting local area elementary and middle schools, presenting workshops to young students about CubeSats.  “We may even launch a high-altitude balloon with small payloads the children can build themselves,” Simmons said.

Dr. Kristina Lemmer, assistant professor of aerospace engineering and one of the student organization’s advisors, said WMU engineering students recently sent up a high altitude balloon 120,000 feet into the atmosphere. They also recently launched one over the Kalamazoo area -- complete with camera and GPS – and were able to take photos from high above. The GPS also allowed them to find the camera in a forest near Coldwater, Mich., and reclaim it.

At least one more balloon launch will take place this semester, Lemmer said. “This balloon should ascend to an altitude of about 30,000 feet where it will travel across the state before the helium is let out and it comes down to Earth.”

The CubeSat program was started in 2002 as a collaboration between California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University’s Space Development Laboratory. It began as an inexpensive way for university students to learn about space systems in a hands-on way.

To learn more about making a tax-deductible donation to the Western University Launch Initiative, go to mywmu.com/WALI.

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The camera takes an aerial view as it heads to 130,000 feet.