On Monday, Dec. 3, after nearly a year of delays, Stanford Space Initiative (SSI) launched its first object into orbit aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, California, the CubeSat is an optical pointing and tracking system named Polar Orbiting Infrared Tracking Receiver (POINTR).
While SSI hosted a viewing party for the launch in Durand, project co-lead Anjali Roychowdhury ’20 and former satellites co-lead Sasha Maldonado ’18 made the 250-mile drive to Vandenberg to watch the rocket launch live.
“All I’ve ever really known at Stanford has been SSI, and like the first year and a half of my experience has been defined by POINTR,” Roychowdhury said. “To see [POINTR] come full circle with the launch was really beautiful.”
Developed by a team of around 10 students, the POINTR payload seeks to test SSI’s ability to communicate information via lasers in space. According to Roychowdhury, optical communication — the use of lasers to transmit information — is much more efficient than radio transmission, allowing satellites to rely on less power, weight and size.
“Currently, Internet satellites communicate with each other with radio, and they’re huge, and they’re bulky, and it’s expensive,” Roychowdhury said. “Internet can become cheaper and faster if we communicate via lasers instead. It also has a lot of applications for like security because it’s much harder to intercept those signals.”
However, it can be difficult to point and track a target correctly in optical communication, especially when that target is only 10 cubic centimeters, like SSI’s payload. That is where POINTR comes in; if it works properly, it will accurately point and track targets.
Once Falcon 9 reached low Earth orbit, SSI’s payload was deployed with several other small satellites. The mission, dubbed the “the SmallSat Express” by contractor Spaceflight, deployed a total of 64 satellites owned by a variety of entities, including universities, governments, startups and even a middle school. One startup’s CubeSat carried the cremated remains of about 100 people in what was dubbed a “shooting star memorial.”
In a few months, SSI will conduct testing in conjunction with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). As the satellite orbits above JPL, SSI will send up a signal to determine whether or not the group can track the signal, measuring POINTR’s effectiveness.
The project itself began in January 2017, when SSI was offered free space on a satellite built by Audacy, a space company that started in the Stanford Graduate School of Business’s “Startup Garage” and won the Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students (BASES) Challenge in 2015. When Audacy originally made the offer, “the SmallSat Express” was scheduled to launch in December 2017.
“POINTR happened because we were offered this payload space on the Audacy satellite, and we were like, ‘oh, a free ride to space sounds amazing,’” Roychowdhury said. “Usually putting a satellite into orbit costs in the order of like 35,000 to 40,000 dollars, which is money we do not have.”
According to fifth-year graduate student Michael Taylor, POINTR built on SSI’s previous research on bidirectional optical communication, which included a grant proposal to NASA for a similar project in 2016.
“We didn’t get [the grant], but what we learned along the way was a little bit more about how those individual systems go together, what you need to demonstrate that kind of mission, and we cut off a piece of that — that became POINTR,” Taylor said.
Much of the remainder of the academic year was spent continuing research, gathering teams and designing the CubeSat. By the time spring quarter ended, they were ready to build. According to SSI co-president Shi Tuck ’20, this presented a challenge, as many upperclassmen were engaged in internships and other opportunities over summer.
“As college students, most people were not here [over summer], so it was mainly freshmen actually on campus during the time POINTR was mostly built,” Tuck said. “It was a lot. For me, I spent like eight hours at work everyday in the lab, and then I would go to work at SSI for like eight hours on POINTR, and then I’d do my homework for CME 102, and then I’d sleep. That was summer. It was fun.”
In July 2017, the team learned that the launch was delayed to February 2018. Every couple weeks after that, the team would learn that the launch had been delayed further. According to Roychowdhury, many of these delays involved legal complications between Spaceflight and the government. In addition, Tuck cited Spaceflight’s need to sign more satellites onto the trip in order to make the launch profitable.
The hardware for POINTR was completed in February 2018 and given to Audacy for integration with its satellite. At that point, the launch was scheduled for November 2018. On Nov. 17, SpaceX announced via Twitter that another delay was needed to “conduct additional pre-flight inspections.” In addition, a Nov. 28 launch attempt was delayed due to “extreme high-altitude winds,” and the Dec. 2 attempt was pushed back for additional inspections. Amid the delays, Tuck said she had been checking Twitter hourly for news of delays or new launch dates.
Now, with the Dec. 3 launch, SSI is one step closer to seeing the fruits of a project that began nearly two years ago. Tuck said she remains hopeful that the system will work. To Taylor, having the satellite turn on in space and “say hello” is a success in itself.
“The best part to me is what the students and all of us were capable of under very limited resources, time constraints and all the other constraints of being a student,” Taylor said. “This was a big team effort … A lot of people have moved on to other things [since POINTR’s completion], but I don’t want all their names and contributions to get lost along the way. It was a bunch of students that put this together — this is what is possible here. Dream big, and go build it.”
Contact Patrick Monreal at pmonreal ‘at’ stanford.edu.