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Small Satellite Competition Equals Big Money

Thursday, Sep. 20, 2007


scholarship winners Patrick Jolley and Scott Jensen

USU space engineering students Patrick Jolley (left) and Scott Jensen.


As Utah’s space university, Utah State University has built an international reputation for expertise in sensor technology, data compression, real-time reconnaissance and payload systems.

Mechanical and aerospace engineering graduate students Scott Jensen and Patrick Jolley chose to attend USU because of its expertise and extensive heritage in the space industry. The choice has literally paid-off for both of them in the form of scholarship money received after competing as finalists in the Frank J. Redd Student Scholarship Competition at the 21st annual Small Satellite Conference.
 
Jolley placed second in the 2007 competition and received a total of $7,500 to further his education. He received the honor for his research with USU mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Stephen A. Whitmore. Jolley and Whitmore developed a way to build an aerodynamic satellite that can drop in altitude until it gets low enough to be able to fly around just inside the Earth’s atmosphere and then boost back into space in a different orbit.
 
“Despite what we see in today’s science fiction movies like Star Wars, we can’t just fly around at will in space,” Jolley said.
 
Therefore, designing a system like this is a smart move. It saves time and money and also makes small satellites more responsive.
 
“If a satellite in orbit fails, it can take months to launch a spare,” Jolley said. “This system would use existing satellites already in orbit and move them to other tasks as needed. Basically, we are designing a space vehicle that would be capable of achieving two missions in space for the price of one.”
 
Jolley said that for the proposed technology to work, the design has to be aerodynamic, it has to be able to deal with high re-entry temperatures, and it requires a complex rocket propulsion engine to give it the thrust it needs.
 
Jensen received an honorable mention in the competition, giving him $2,500. Jensen’s research is aimed at increasing the amount of small satellite missions in space by loosening the orbit restrictions imposed by the orientation of a satellite in space. His work with USU mechanical and aerospace engineering professor David Geller has been to design an algorithm that will work well in a range of orbits.
 
“This type of algorithm is more difficult to develop than most, but it is useful, particularly in the small satellite community because they have a better chance of getting into space if they can “hitch a ride” with a larger satellite,” Jensen said.
 
The Small Satellite Conference is hosted annually on the USU campus and is attended by academia, industry and government agencies from more than 20 countries spanning the globe. The student scholarship competition is open to all full-time undergraduate or graduate students pursuing degrees in an engineering or scientific discipline at an accredited college or university. 
More than 50 students from around the world submitted papers that included actual projects and concepts related to advancing and broadening the applications for small satellites.
 
“USU has qualified professors in many space-related fields, several coming from long careers at different NASA centers,” said Jolley. “I would have never received the honor of second place in the competition without their mentorship and encouragement.”
 
The panel of judges, which included representation from NASA, the Air Force Research Laboratory, academia and industry, read the papers and then whittled the finalists down to six. Jensen and Jolley were in prestigious company as they were chosen to compete against students from Washington University, Santa Clara University, the University of Missouri and The Tokyo Institute of Technology.
 
“This was a tough competition and the other universities had some great research,” Jensen said. “The aerospace community has always been one of the places where great minds and highly motivated people come together. Competing in the small satellite student competition allowed me to be a part of that. It was a great opportunity for me to showcase the significant amount of work that goes into this type of research.”
 
The potential of Jolley’s research obviously intrigued the competition’s judges and Jolley credits his USU professors’ enthusiasm, ideas and expertise in the area of rocket and spaceflight research for his success as a student.
 
“If you are looking to go into aerospace, USU is the way to go,” Jolley said.
 
Jensen echoed that sentiment, and said the USU professors he worked with are good at feeling out what direction the research should take and what aspects are simply not worth the work.
Jensen became excited about space research when he learned about the planets in elementary school.
 
“Space exploration has done more to advance science and technology than almost any other subject,” Jensen said. “There are always new and exciting discoveries.”
 
Jensen and Jolley received master’s degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering in the summer of 2007. Their success in the classroom has transferred to life after USU. Jensen is working as an engineer in nuclear waste disposal for Bechtel Bettis, Inc., at the Naval Reactor Facility near Idaho Falls, Idaho. Jolley is employed at ATK Launch Systems in Magna, Utah, where he designs and analyzes new launch vehicles.
 
The Small Satellite conference is co-sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. It has become internationally recognized as the premier conference on small satellites. More than 60 government agencies and top aerospace corporations exhibit at the conference, including ATK, Ball Aerospace, L-3 Communications, Lockheed Martin and NASA. International exhibitors included organizations from Canada, England, Scotland, Japan, the Netherlands and Sweden.
 
Scholarship funds for the Frank J. Redd Student Scholarship Competition come from space-related research companies and private donors. The scholarship money received by Jensen and Jolley can be used for any academic related expenses. Redd established the Small Satellite conference and was former deputy director for SDL, as well as a professor in USU’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department.
 
For more information about USU’s space research, visit the Center for Space Engineering Web site. For more information on the Small Satellite Conference, visit its Web site.
 

Writer: Maren Cartwright, [maren.cartwright@usu.edu] 435-797-1355





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