Viterbi students build, deliver satellite to start-up

Vector Space Systems will send its CubeSat satellite into orbit to test technological advancement. (Photo Courtesy of Space Engineering Research Center)

A team of students in the Viterbi School of Engineering have taken one small step toward space and made one big leap for their careers.

Early in March, these students finished building and delivered USC’s third CubeSat satellite, which is about the size of a breadbox. David Barnhart, a research professor in the astronautics department, led the students selected from the Space Engineering Research Center through the year-long building process of the satellite.

The team has successfully delivered the satellite to its customer, Vector Space Systems, a start-up developing satellites and launch vehicles. Vector will use this newly built satellite to test its technology in space and ensure it works before selling it to customers.

“It’s definitely a huge success because we’ve spent the past year or so working on this and we’ve been able to start from pretty much nothing and create a CubeSat that’s ready to go to space,” said Rahul Rughani, a doctoral student and systems engineer for the team.

The CubeSat satellite will be used for technology development, testing the company’s payload when sent to space. Once in orbit, the satellite will generate power and send a signal to the ground, indicating that everything is functional. The customer’s payload will then send data to Vector, while the satellite’s sensors simultaneously send information to the ground to ensure everything is operating as expected.

“Size matters in space relative to payloads and power and things so it can’t do a lot by itself but … we provide a platform, in essence, to carry their electronic boards to validate that they work,” Barnhart said.

Rebecca Rogers, the team’s integration and test director, said this was a rare opportunity for students to have an internship-like experience before entering the workforce.

“It feels like a big accomplishment to send something that actually will get launched into space and being able to take a lot of the theoretical knowledge that we’ve gained and turn it into an actual product that will send data back down from space to Earth,” said Rogers, who graduated from USC’s graduate astronautical engineering program last May. “I think it turns a lot of what our dreams were into reality.”

Rughani said working on the satellite allowed students to apply the skills they’ve learned in classes and solve real-world problems.

“We learn about this in classes but applying it to actual hardware is very different,” Rughani said. “The hardware doesn’t always cooperate with you unlike a simulation on a computer. And then, you run into things that you wouldn’t even think about when you’re designing.”

Rogers said creating the satellite allowed her to gain experience and discover her career aspirations in different aspects of engineering.

“I just think that was really valuable for me to just get experience in all these different things and [see what] a job in any one of these subsystems [could] be like day to day,” Rogers said.