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UNM Celebrates Launch of First Satellite

Researchers, students design and build satellite

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Trailblazer Launch
Researchers and students gather at COSMIAC to watch launch of Trailblazer satellite. Photo credit: Karen Wentworth

On Tuesday evening, the NASA Wallops Flight Facility launched a Minotaur 1 rocket with 13 small satellites aboard, including one constructed by University of New Mexico researchers and students. UNM's Trailblazer satellite is now in orbit and is beginning to send back information on gamma ray radiation in the ionosphere.

The cubesats are small, 4 inches by 4 inches by 4 inches, but they have complex missions. Trailblazer will provide a proof of concept to an Air Force sponsored technology called Space Plug and play Architecture (SPA).  The idea is to quickly build satellites for a range of missions using off the shelf components. 

Currently satellites use individually designed components which must be individually tested and approved for the demanding environment they will encounter in space.  That drives up cost exponentially.  If Trailblazer works as envisioned, its internal commercially available components will operate well in a hostile environment in which they are bombarded with gamma radiation, and subjected to extreme heating and cooling cycles as the cubesat orbits.

"Development of this cubesat involved many students who worked on elements of the satellite and the sustained efforts of the research and development team at COSMIAC," said UNM Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and COSMIAC Director Christos Christodoulou. "We are thrilled as we move into the next phase of our program."

UNM's first CubeSat, Trailblazer.

Trailblazer is providing radiation exposure measurements from a dosimeter designed by UNM’s Configurable Space Microsystems Innovations and Applications Center (COSMIAC) and the Air Force Research Laboratory.  It also carries a new additive manufacturing technology designed by researchers at the University of Texas El Paso.

Trailblazer and UNM are members of NASA’s cubesat Launch Initiative and it’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellite (ELaNA) Missions.  This program allows students and faculty members an opportunity for hands-on flight hardware development experience.

Craig Kief, Academic and Program Support for COSMIAC, and Brian Zufelt, Small Satellite and SPA Development, will lead the team monitoring information from Trailblazer. GENSO, a European Space Agency initiative, will provide global ground station support to the academic institutions conducting research.

The U.S. Air Force’s Space Development and Test Directorate and the Operationally Responsive Space Office launched satellites on the ORS-3 Mission, also known as the Enabler Mission to demonstrate launch and range improvements which include automated vehicle trajectory targeting, range safety planning and flight termination.  The mission also demonstrated commercial-like procurement and Federal Aviation Administration licensing of the Minotaur I rocket. 

The cubesats were launched as part of the Integrated Payload Stack of the Air Force’s Space Test Program Satelitte-3.  These enabling activities underscore the ability of the Air Force Research Laboratory to execute a rapid call-up mission and automate engineering tasks that reduce timelines from months to days or hours which results in decreased mission costs. 

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