UC Berkeley undergraduates approved to launch satellite

STAC/Courtesy

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QubeSat, a project started by UC Berkeley undergraduate students to test new satellite rotation technology, has been approved to launch by 2021.

The 15-member QubeSat team is part of Space Technologies at Cal, or STAC, and started working on the project in August 2019. Supported by NASA, its launch is scheduled for spring 2021 but may be delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to campus sophomore and QubeSat project lead Vidish Gupta, the team is using other campus research on quantum gyroscopes, which can be used to record the length of a rotation of a satellite.

“We found that there’s this new technology available, and we wanted to be able to find a way to test its power in space,” said campus junior and STAC co-president Paul Köttering. “We looked at what research was being done on campus and then we tried to find a project that would suit that.”

According to QubeSat member and campus sophomore Sally Peng, the team is using a CubeSat or a miniaturized satellite used for space research — to test a quantum gyroscope by using the “unique” properties of nitrogen vacancy, or NV, centers in diamonds.

Created when synthetic diamonds are hit with nitrogen, NV centers replace carbon atoms with nitrogen and react to different factors, including radio frequency waves and visible light. This light reaction can then be used to measure the diamond’s motion and subsequently the rate at which a satellite is spinning, according to Köttering.

“Traditionally, (CubeSats) have been used as a learning tool, and that’s exactly what these students are doing,” said David Sundkvist, project mentor and a researcher at the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory, or SSL. “They’re learning a lot from it.”

According to Köttering, the team was almost ready to test the hardware but is now refocusing on aspects of the projects that can be done remotely, such as coding, design and procedures, due to COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders.

The project has received $4,950 in funding from the Student Technology Fund, and the team has also raised money through the Big Give campaign, according to Gupta. QubeSat is also one of 18 research satellites selected to participate in the upcoming round of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, which covers up to $300,000 of launching costs, according to a NASA press release. 

The project is also supported by the SSL, which provides the project members with engineering mentors and access to testing facilities, according to SSL physicist John Bonnell.

“QubeSat’s attempt to fly a ‘quantum gyroscope’ takes a very old and essential problem — how can you tell which way you’re pointing? — and applies cutting-edge laboratory physics to it,” Bonnell said. “The more compact and inexpensive one can make such essential equipment, the better off the entire aerospace community will be.”

Contact Mela Seyoum at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @melaseyoum.