Rowan seeks new heights with satellite launch

Rowan University assistant professor Sangho Shin (left), who oversees the MemSat Project, talks with Tomas Uribe, who is writing code to measure battery duration.

Rowan University’s new engineering hall does not just boast small class sizes and state-of-the-art facilities – in it are professors and students working to make New Jersey history.

A group of professors – Sangho Shin, John Schmalzel, and Robert Krchnavek – and graduate and undergraduate students are in the final stages of creating their very own nanosatellite, built as a part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative.

Rowan is the first university in the state selected to take part in this program.

CubeSats are small, cube-shaped satellites that conduct educational research and technology demonstrations, or science missions, and relay the gathered information back to researchers.

Rowan’s satellite, named MemSat, is only 4 inches on each side – graduate student Russell Trafford compared it to a “Kleenex box” – and will fly as an auxiliary payload aboard a resupply mission to the International Space Station sometime in the next few months.

Camera icon Akira Suwa
Rowan University students and professors are working together on the CubeSat project.

“You have to build everything around it to be able to talk to it, get data from it, and have it run on its own,” Trafford said.

A launch provider, NanoRacks, handles integration with NASA — the team will give the satellite to NanoRacks, which will put it into a deployer the size of about four nanosatellites, or “a fancy jack-in-the-box,” as Trafford described it.

After the deployer reaches the International Space Station, it will later be launched out of the airlock.

The team’s goal is to gather enough experimental data that “compares the memristor memory’s performance against the standard charge-base, the flash memory product,” said Shin, the principal investigator on the project.

Flash memory is very traditional, and is used by any type of embedded system – from coffee makers to televisions – while memristors store memory in a way that is chemically different than flash memory, said Tanner Smith, a junior at Rowan majoring in electrical computer engineering.

“Since it stores it in a different way, we are sending it up into space to see how radiation directly affects it,” he said. “Because that’s important, when you put it in high-radiation zones, you need to check if you need a rad shield, or if you need to protect it from radiation.”

Adam Fifth, a graduate student and project manager, said there is no real push to make resistive memory bigger and faster, but if the team finds out that it can survive in space better than anything else, then the military, government, or any other group with an interest in space-bearing electronics will push for that.

Camera icon Akira Suwa
Project manager Adam Fifth (right) talks with students (from left) Steve Szymczak, Nick Gorab, and Tanner Smith.

But even more palpable than the project itself was the passion and excitement of everyone involved.

When asked how the team will measure success, Shin said they are already halfway there because of the number of students who get to work on this project.

Undergraduate students get to work on projects such as the MemSat through Rowan’s engineering clinics – required courses that provide students hands-on skills.  Smith is one of those students.

“I can apply what I’m learning to something that will actually be in space, something that I can actually have my name on and be proud of and tell my friends and family that I did,” Smith said.

Brian Dixon, a graduate student studying electrical computer engineering, said that as someone who went through the clinic program, the best aspect is that students can learn something in class on Monday or Tuesday, and then one or two days later apply that to something physical in the real world.

“There is a pile of parts over there that is going to be put on top of a rocket and thrown out an airlock of the International Space Station,” Dixon said. “That is nuts.”