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Q&A: Illinois student by day, satellite engineer by night

By Mike O’Neill, Staff Writer

Dawn Haken is a junior studying electrical engineering at the University. While many students spend their time outside of class as leisurely as they can, Haken and a small team of engineering students strategize the best way to power their NASA-funded satellite, which is set to launch in 2018. Haken and her three-man crew are constructing solar panels in a way that will provide the shoebox-sized satellite with sufficient usable energy while also sustaining the conditions of outer space. In this interview, Haken shares more about the substantial project of constructing a functioning cube satellite.

Building a satellite must take plenty of work. Who works on this project with you?

There are dozens of students who have their hands in on this satellite project. I lead the solar panel team for this satellite in particular. Our objective is to construct the solar panels which will provide the satellite with power once it is out of the atmosphere and up in space.

Does the crew have any sort of guidance outside of just students?

We basically build everything from scratch. So, all the (circuit) boards, all of the electronics are designed by students. We don’t fabricate the boards ourselves, though. We send them out of house to get fabricated. We have oscilloscopes and power supplies that we use for checking electronics. We have soldering stations so we can make small changes to the boards and put together various things as well.

How large is your satellite, and what is inside it?

Our cube satellite is composed of three units, or 3U’s, and each unit is about 1,000 cubic centimeters. Each unit weighs about 1.3 kilograms, so it’s right around 4 kilograms. Like I said, we pretty much build everything from scratch. Inside the cubes is a load of batteries and circuit boards, then the solar panels extend on the exterior of the satellite.

What are some key things to pay attention to when assembling your satellite?

First off, everything on the spacecraft must be kept really clean. We don’t want to get anybody’s finger grease on it because … when you’re in space, that stuff won’t stay stuck to the surface of the satellite. It’ll sort of fly off and then come back and land on other parts. If our satellite was very dirty and we put it up in space, even if the solar cells were clean, we are allowing the grease to come off, land on the solar cells and possibly fog them up. We also don’t want any larger bits, whether it be aluminum or debris, to go up with the satellite because they could get loose and short the boards.

What role do the vacuum chambers play in constructing the satellite?

We can basically remove all of the air from this vacuum, which is very helpful because we can help replicate a space-like setting before we get the satellite up there. There is also a nitrogen shroud in the vacuum, which can fill the space with liquid nitrogen and get the temperature down to about  minus 80 degrees Celsius. So that’s essentially simulating space right there — really cold plus no air.

There are some materials that would just fall apart when put in a vacuum, so it’s nice to test them out first. For example, some glues may just turn into jelly if they don’t have any atmospheric pressure on them like they do on Earth. We have to be really careful and aware of that stuff when we’re choosing materials. We also have a smaller vacuum with another use. If we apply glue to something and need to get the air bubbles out, then we can just toss it into the vacuum for a few minutes.

Will the satellite go through any other types of tests before it makes its way into the sky?

Yes — we also have a cage that can create its own magnetic field within itself. Our satellite figures out where it is by measuring Earth’s magnetic field and also creates its own little magnetic field. Then it pushes on Earth’s magnetic field to re-orient itself. So with this cage, we can cancel out the magnetic field in the room and act like we are in space for a little bit! We also run a test on the solar panels with a solar simulator. This device can help us estimate how much power our panels will actually produce once they get into space.

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