Students at the University of Washington and Washington State University are building tiny satellites for launch into orbit in the next several years, gaining hands-on experience for possible careers in the region’s space industry.

Share story

When it’s finished, it’ll be only about the size of a large box of Kleenex. But DubSat1, as its builders are calling it, will become the first Washington state student-built satellite, and it will help launch some University of Washington graduates into space careers.

Both the UW and Washington State University were selected by NASA this year to build tiny satellites, known as CubeSats, that will go into orbit by the end of the decade.

“If Seattle is going to be the next big place for space — not just airplanes — it requires a large community that supports it,” said UW student Hunter Mellema, a senior majoring in aerospace engineering. “We’re really hoping the UW can be a bigger part of helping to build that here, and that this program can be the catalyst.”

Both student groups are getting mentoring help from the space industry, a growing segment of Washington’s economy that includes such companies as Blue Origin, the space company founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos; Planetary Resources, a Redmond company that wants to mine asteroids; and Aerojet, a Redmond company that builds small rockets.

The UW satellite is scheduled to launch first, sometime after August of next year, followed by the WSU satellite in 2019 or 2020.

DubSat1 will be 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters by 30 centimeters, also known as a triple cube, and will cost an estimated $80,000.

Already, the students have put in hundreds of hours of work testing prototypes, with help from the UW’s earth and space sciences department and its electrical-engineering department.

DubSat1 will stay in low-Earth orbit and send data and photos back to Earth for three to four months.

It will demonstrate several types of technologies. One is a pulse plasma thruster, a propulsion system that will allow students to perform small orbital maneuvers and keep the satellite in orbit for three months, Mellema said. Typically, miniature satellites don’t have propulsion systems.

The satellite also will test a new way of transmitting data, using a high-frequency antenna with an alternative design that will unfold in space, like deconstructed origami. CubeSats — most of which are built by university students as part of the NASA Space Grant program — have been limited by technology to download speeds of kilobytes per second, but the DubSat1 will be able to download at megabytes per second, the students believe.

“That’s the difference between a small video and dial-up,” Mellema said. “It’s an order of magnitude bigger.”

Students must build their satellites to “space grade” specifications, which includes enabling them to withstand wild temperature swings, from a high of 80 Celsius (176 F) to a low of -40 Celsius (-40 F). There also can be no gas bubbles in the satellite’s soldering and epoxy or the satellite will explode.

“Space is not forgiving — it is the least forgiving environment,” said Kenneth Eversole, the president of the WSU club Cougs in Space.

The WSU club is just getting started, and its satellite will be two-thirds smaller than the UW’s. “We’re trying to craft our own method of doing it,” said Eversole, adding that WSU might try to develop multiple little ground stations at universities around the world to receive the satellite’s transmissions.

The UW students are buying space-grade solar panels from Germany and a GPS system from Canada. Meanwhile, they’re partnering with students at Raisbeck Aviation High School in the Highline School District to build a camera for the satellite to take pictures from space.

Because CubeSats are 80 percent circuit board, most testing happens on an electrical test bench, said Paige Northway, a graduate student working on the project.

The UW students have made plastic prototypes to see how it can all fit together, and soon they’ll move to a metal prototype. “We’ll put it on a vibration table and shake it as if it’s on a rocket so we know there are no weird oscillatory modes,” Mellema said.

“Or screws falling out,” Northway added. “It makes a big difference to know it’s not just a paper study; you’re not just building frames because they look cool — although, they do look really cool.”

Eversole, of WSU, said the great thing about the CubeSat project is that it has required all the club members to greatly stretch their knowledge.

“Quite honestly, nothing we’ve learned in the classroom has really applied to this, because it’s so complex,” he said.