Story by Dennis Hollier
Photos by Matt Mallams
On a clear June night in 2006, a Russian Dnepr rocket—an ICBM converted to civilian use—blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Shortly after takeoff the booster engine failed, and the old SS-18 missile crashed in the desert near the border of Uzbekistan, taking with it a payload of satellites from Russia, Egypt, Belarus and Italy. Also lost in the crash was a payload of fourteen CubeSats, tiny satellites designed and built by students at universities around the world, including the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa.
The ill-fated CubeSat, the culmination of thousands of hours of work by dozens of UH students, would have been the first Hawai‘i-built satellite to go into orbit. Now, seven years after the debacle in Kazakhstan and five generations of CubeSats later, Wayne Shiroma and a new team of students are going to try again. This fall their latest satellite, Ho‘oponopono, will piggyback on a NASA launch out of Cape Canaveral. At roughly the size of a shoebox, Ho‘oponopono will be three times as large as its predecessor and carry sophisticated communications and radar calibration technology. Whether it will be the first Hawai‘i satellite in orbit remains to be seen.
Shiroma, chairman of the Department of Electrical Engineering, started the Hawai‘i program in 2002 and has led it since. CubeSat technology was, he says, conceived by two Stanford professors, Jordi Puig-Suare and Bob Twiggs. “Twiggs had a conception of students building a satellite and having it launched within their educational lifetimes,” Shiroma says. Twiggs also established the original dimensions of the satellite: a ten-centimeter cube. “He was standing outside a corner drugstore,” says Shiroma, “and saw someone walk by with a Beanie Baby box and thought, ‘That’s about the right size for the satellite that I think we should start building.’” In UH’s small satellite program, students design, build, test and manage the satellite. They even select its mission. “Anything goes,” Shiroma says. “That’s the beauty of it. Students can conceive of any mission they want. Then, rather than relying on NASA or any other big satellite developer, they can build their own project; they can manage their own budgets and timelines.”
Shiroma speaks of his students with evident pride. He points out, for example, that Larry Martin, a grad student now serving as program manager for the Ho‘oponopono project, was selected as student of the year by the national honor society for electrical engineers because of his undergraduate work on Ho‘oponopono. Shiroma gets even more emotional when he talks about the effect the program has had on systems engineer Nick Fisher. “Larry was always good with his grades,” Shiroma says. “He could do the traditional lecture and textbook model. Nick, once, was not. I hope I’m not embarrassing him, but he didn’t have the best grades in traditional classes. But then we put him in charge as the systems engineer—the chief engineer. All of a sudden there was a whole paradigm shift because now he knows he’s in charge of a team, he’s in charge of a $200,000 budget. More importantly, he’s not just learning engineering; he’s actually doing engineering.”
Not surprisingly, the Hawai‘i CubeSat students took their opportunity seriously and designed a satellite that would fulfill a need. “This is a C-band radar calibration satellite,” Fisher explains. “There are C-band radar stations all over the globe—more than eighty in all—whose primary purpose is to track objects in space. That could be a launch vehicle, a rocket going into space or a satellite, but operators need to know very accurately where it is.” To help calibrate these stations, Ho‘oponopono carries a transponder (which amplifies and responds to the tracking station signals) and a space-grade GPS to precisely determine its own position. By comparing the two sets of data, the C-band stations can check their accuracy.
This isn’t just a science experiment, says Martin; it has real-world application. “There are just two radar calibration satellites in orbit right now, one of which is approaching twenty years past its life expectancy and has been failing—shutting down and turning back on, things like that. So they’re looking for a replacement. What we’re doing as a student team isn’t coming up with a replacement itself, but rather something to supplement these satellites. Our solution is over sixty times smaller and about a hundred times cheaper than RadCal, one of those satellites currently in orbit.”
That’s one of the main advantages of micro-satellites like CubeSat. Although the primary purpose of CubeSat is to prepare students for careers in the graying aerospace industry (and industry representatives are definitely interested), the program is more broadly a demonstration of the potential of nano-satellites. CubeSats can be built and launched cheaply and quickly, and universities and other scientific organizations have come up with hundreds of applications for them. “There have been all kinds of missions,” Shiroma says. “Some have been scientific, like collecting weather data. Others have a camera on board so you can take images over various parts of the Earth. Others simply demonstrate a new type of technology. … By putting it into something very inexpensive, they can test it.” That’s the promise of CubeSat.
Beyond all these practical considerations, there’s something poetic about the UH CubeSat. “Ho‘oponopono is a Hawaiian tradition,” Martin says, “a Hawaiian word meaning ‘to make things right.’ We’re using that as an analogy, because the whole process of calibration is to make something right.”
If all goes well, maybe Ho‘oponopono can make right that disaster of seven years ago in the high desert of Kazakhstan.