Big Idea, Small Chassis

By Robert Perkins

USC’s Space Engineering Research Center constructs compact, affordable space vehicles.

USC developed its first USC developed its first "CubeSat," CAERUS, in 2010. The microsatellite that could drastically reduce the cost of satellite missions.

While the Trojan rocketeers try to reach space, across town another group of USC Viterbi students are already there. The school’s Space Engineering Research Center (SERC) is carving out a place for universities to contribute to innovations in the design and construction of compact, affordable space vehicles.

Now in its fifth year, the center is a joint venture between the astronautical engineering department and USC Viterbi’s pioneering Information Sciences Institute (ISI). Located at the institute’s Marina del Rey headquarters, the effort benefits from active participation by faculty researchers, but is constrained by both distance (15 miles from the University Park campus) and the tighter security in place at ISI. As a result, the seven to 10 students working there haven’t made the same rapid progress as the Rocket Lab team, says SERC director Joseph Kunc.

Even so, they have already developed a 4-foot-wide prototype lunar lander, called LEAPFROG, powered by a jet engine. While the vehicle still requires plenty of work to make it fly and hover in a stable fashion, the project is moving forward steadily.

In another project, the group is placing tiny spacecraft called “CubeSats” into orbit. Part of a widespread effort to build microsatellites at relatively low cost, CubeSats likely represent the future of satellite technology. Cal Poly Pomona pioneered the concept of microsatellites, which could easily piggyback onto other space launches. What used to require a $6 million spacecraft and a $20 million launch could theoretically be done for a fraction of the price, provided the mission is not too complex.

For example, one possible CubeSat task would be to track individual cargo containers on oceangoing freighters. It’s a job that satellites could perform right now but for the prohibitive cost of putting them in space.

“It’s not that we’re proposing something that no one knows how to do,” says Dan Erwin, chair of the Department of Astronautical Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “We’re proposing something that no one knows how to do cheaply.”

USC’s first CubeSat, CAERUS, rode a SpaceX rocket into orbit in May 2010. About the size of a breadbox, it is a “3U” satellite, meaning it’s made up of three microsatellites in a single unit. CAERUS demonstrated successful self-positioning and self-power via solar arrays.

The university’s second CubeSat, AENEAS, will catch a ride aboard a U.S. Air Force rocket this summer. In addition to all the features of CAERUS, AENEAS boasts a dish antenna that will allow it to receive weak signals – such as what might be transmitted from cargo containers aboard freighters.