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Sonoma State students build, deploy tiny satellite

  • From the left, Aaron Pacheco, Garrett Jernigan and Kevin Zack communicate with a small satellite as it flies over Petaluma on Thursday, December 5, 2013. The satellite was created and is now controlled by students at Sonoma State University. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

Orbiting about 400 miles over your head is a tiny box that could revolutionize the way we think about satellites.

Designed and built in part by students at Sonoma State University, the “T-LogoQube” may be the smallest functioning satellite ever put in space; it’s certainly among the cheapest. It is also, in all probability, the only satellite ever launched that can be reprogrammed in flight, opening a new era of flexibility for hardware in orbit.

“The software is more sophisticated than any satellite I’ve ever worked on, even the most expensive ones,” said retired UC Berkeley research physicist Garrett Jernigan, who helped create the SSU program.

The satellite is tiny, just 5-by-5-by-15 centimeters, or about the size of a TV remote control. Inside is a tiny radio and a sensor that reads the earth’s magnetic field.

The satellite passes over Sonoma County twice a day, around noon and midnight, giving the students two chances a day to communicate with it. The satellite sends data about its position and condition; the students send up instructions to pivot, spin, or do other basic tricks by using coils of wire that react to the magnetic field and push the satellite around in orbit.

That may not seem like much, but the fact that it was built in a matter of months by undergraduate students using off-the-shelf electronics, all for a few thousand dollars, is revolutionary, said Professor Lynn Cominsky, chair of the SSU Department of Physics and Astronomy.

“We can talk to it and it does things … that’s the kind of capability that you usually have on a $100 million satellite,” said Cominsky, who is married to Jernigan.

Now that the students know how to do such a thing, she said, it opens up the possibility of launching tiny satellites carrying instruments that would generate useful scientific data, such as X-ray or gamma ray sensors searching for distant stars and other celestial objects, a personal area of research for Cominsky.

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