Students help NASA with 'cube satellite' technology

?Cube satellites? are slightly bigger than a breadbox and high in orbit, and NASA is looking for better ways to bring them down.
November 27, 2013 7:49:39 PM PST
It is only slightly bigger than a breadbox and high in orbit -- but not for long. Maybe you have heard of "cube satellites." Now, NASA is looking for more efficient ways of bringing them down and finding new talent as well.

There is a large and impressive room at NASA Ames in Mountain View, where work for the future often obscures an historic past. "This building where we are standing is the Mission Analysis Division, the MAD division," NASA project scientist Marcus Murbach said. It is a place that since the 1960s has turned theories into working hardware. And now, it's turning students into viable, working NASA scientists.

"We have people who are good with their hands, natural manufacturers, as well as guys who are at the top of their test scores," Murbach said.

Murbach wears multiple hats. At NASA, he develops projects -- cube satellites. At San Jose State, he teaches propulsion and then brings the best and brightest of those students, like mathematician Robert Hansen, to work at the MAD division. "I didn't do quite the heavy calculations, the lambdas and thetas, but I helped out wherever I could," he told ABC7 News.

He's was talking about tracking a small cube satellite launched from the International Space Station earlier this month. On board is an experimental parachute-type device designed to deploy, use the remnants of atmosphere to slow it, and bring it back home fast without use of retro rockets.

It's a novel concept and possible advance from the old methods of flying an object down or having it burn through the atmosphere. Imagine, instead, a self-directed parachute-type drop from space to a designated target.

Their proof of performance is orbiting now and slowing now. It returns to Earth in December. Whether it succeeds or fails is all part of the teaching process, but it's a win either way as one generation of scientists teaches another.


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