How one U.S. university continues cubesat work during the pandemic

University of Colorado in Boulder focuses on software testing, documentation

BOULDER, Colo. — Now that he’s more than a month into online learning, Scott Palo is glad that he and his grad students put some thought into their strategy of “grabbing a bunch of stuff” before leaving campus.

For Palo’s students at the University of Colorado in Boulder, like those in other aerospace programs around the country, learning in recent years has come to mean more than attending classes in person, or now, online. Ideally, hands-on learning will continue during the coronavirus pandemic to a degree that is safe and practical, and that’s what is happening in Boulder.

Palo, an aerospace and engineering sciences professor at CU and chair of AIAA’s Small Satellite Technical Committee, spoke to me over the phone from his home. In his basement, he has hooked up a battery power supply, soldering tools and an oscilloscope — all liberated from his lab. The idea was to “have the tools of the testing” ready to continue trying out cubesat components and software either at home or by connecting to the lab remotely, he says.

Palo, it turns out, has not needed the soldering tools: As of our talk, he hadn’t broken anything yet. The oscilloscope has come in handy for testing electrical interfaces between subsystems on smallsat designs, but overall, hardware hasn’t been the focus.

“I’d say we’re in software and documentation mode,” he says.

Anticipating the closure, a student team worked in the lab for three days to set up a flatsat, or simulated, version of their upcoming U.S. Air Force-funded MAXWELL cubesat, short for Multiple Access X-band Wave Experiment Located in LEO. From their homes, Palo and his students access, via the internet, this networked array of electronics that are just like the ones planned for MAXWELL, which is now in the testing phase. This way, they can continue to upload software for testing. One of 18 small satellites selected by NASA to be deployed as secondary rocket payloads from 2021 to 2023, MAXWELL will demonstrate a radio design for smallsats.

The Air Force’s University Nanosatellite Program 9 is helping pay for development of MAXWELL. The spacecraft will be large by cubesat standards at 6 units long, meaning the volume of six 10-centimeter cubes joined together.

Unfortunately, Palo and his students had to stop assembling a different cubesat, the CU Earth Escape Explorer, CU-E3. It is one of 13 smallsats NASA plans to deploy during the Space Launch System rocket’s Artemis-1 mission, the design’s uncrewed inaugural flight targeted for 2021. Once in space, the Orion crew capsule and service module will separate from the rocket’s Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage, revealing the Orion stage adapter and its payload slots from which CU-E3 and the other payloads will spring free.

CU-E3 will test the same radio transmitter design as the one tested in LEO on MAXWELL, but this time from 4 million kilometers away after it flies past the moon.

Since the university closed its buildings, no one has been allowed in the labs.

Now, instead, the students have plenty of time to document test plans for hardware, for example, and this may be fortunate. Getting picked for the Artemis flight has taught the students a cold fact about working on a high-profile NASA mission: “A lot more reviews and processes,” Palo says. “A whole lot more paperwork.”

Palo is erring on the side of caution about what constitutes essential work that would require leaving home.

“We want to keep working — people want to be critical — but we don’t want to put any students at risk,” he says.

He’s also mindful that if he and his students were to go back to the lab, but others are not permitted to, that could be perceived as unfair.


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How one U.S. university continues cubesat work during the pandemic