Satellite proposal wins national aeronautics and astronautics competition

For a final project, a group of eight University aerospace engineering students drafted a proposal that would win them first place and $1,500 at an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics competition, but not an A on their project.

For their senior design project, their aerospace engineering professor, David Carroll, asked them to design and propose a plan for a space-based solar power system, using the guidelines given by the AIAA competition. At the end of the year, the group was offered the option of submitting their final project to the competition, and they did.

Brian Levine, then-senior in Engineering, served as the lead engineer on the project. The project’s main goal was to collect solar power using solar panels in outer space and, somehow, deliver this energy back to earth so that its inhabitants could access and use it.

The students were given three main guidelines that they had to base their design around. First, the students must keep the total cost under $21 billion. Second, the system must be able to send one gigawatt of power back to Earth wirelessly. Finally, the system needs to be fully operational by the year 2040.

Levine said the biggest challenge out of the three was being able to send a gigawatt of power back to earth. He said this was difficult because solar power is not necessarily the most efficient form of energy. In their initial planning, the group estimated that the total area of solar panels necessary to accomplish this task would roughly cover Champaign-Urbana.

Levine said that their original plan, which consisted of three satellites, reminded him of the Death Star, the fictionalized moon-sized space station and super weapon in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

When the team presented their first proposal to their professor as a midterm, there was little hope of winning the competition. Levine said he left the midterm saying, “Man, this design sucks.”

Carroll agreed, saying in an email, “At the end of fall semester last year, Brian’s team actually had an unworkable design.”

Shortly after midterms, the team met in a small conference room and started brainstorming new ideas, one of which was to downsize from the three massive satellites and use multiple smaller ones instead.

Everyone supported splitting up the satellites once they began designing their new plan, Levine said. “We realized there were a lot of possibilities with small satellites.”

The team envisioned how helpful this design would be in the face of a natural disaster because the satellites would be able to re-direct power from their system to the specified area in need. Once the team had actual applications for the design and wasn’t just fulfilling the requirements, Levine said the group members felt “miles ahead of everyone else.”

The final proposal included 24 satellites, each covered with solar panels. The solar power would then be converted into microwaves using a transmitter, which would be in orbit next to its solar panel satellite.

This conversion is what would enable energy to be delivered back to Earth. Levine said the team chose to use microwaves instead of lasers after considering “what a giant space laser would do to the environment.”

The microwaves would then travel to designated SolPatches — a term they coined — which would be located at different places on Earth. Each location would contain three SolPatches, which are a special type of antennae that convert microwaves into electricity, called a rectifying antenna, or rectenna.

“The big advantage of having your power plants flying around the earth is that they can be in many places at one time,” Levine said. “You can’t move around a nuclear power plant, right?”

On Sept. 10, Levine attended the AIAA space exposition in San Diego to present his team’s winning proposal and collect their $1500.

Although Carroll said the team recovered “splendidly well” from their original proposal at the end of fall semester, the group still didn’t get an A on the project.

“That’s just how it goes, I guess,” Levine said.

Sophia can be reached at [email protected]