Spotlight on undergraduate research: Flying high at Abington

Abington engineering

Penn State Abington students flew an experimental version of the CubeSat prototype to test its features.

Credit: Penn State

Penn State Abington offers a vibrant undergraduate research program, known as ACURA (Abington College Undergraduate Research Activities). This story is one in a monthly series about ACURA projects students develop over the course of one or more academic years in partnership with their teacher-mentors.

ABINGTON, Pa. — Penn State Abington students who are selected to work with Masataka Okutsu, assistant professor of engineering, on an Abington College Undergraduate Research Activities (ACURA) project literally have an out-of-this-world experience. 

Okutsu and his students are working on a project called the "Design of CubeSat Prototype and High-Altitude Test via Weather Balloon." CubeSat, a type of miniaturized satellite for space research, is comprised of multiples of 10 centimeter × 10 centimeter × 11.35 centimeter cubic units. They have a mass of no more than 1.33 kilograms per unit and often use commercial off-the-shelf components for their electronics and structure.  

“CubeSat is a type of a miniature satellite that is small enough to hold in your hand,” Okutsu said. “These palm-sized spacecraft are gaining interest as they offer ways to explore space science at a relatively low cost.” 

ACURA students design and build experimental versions of CubeSats, which are not meant to be flown in space but are used to test the performance of its instruments in relevant conditions. 

The students use a weather balloon to fly the prototype to high altitudes to demonstrate the features of CubeSat for their projects. During the flight tests, the prototype measures environmental parameters, tracks its position, and sends the digital information to ground users via amateur radio.  

Abington engineering

To test how the prototype would perform at high altitudes, Penn State Abington student Lingqi Li used the cooling baths method to model the temperature of the stratosphere at minus 56 degrees Celsius (approximately minus 69 degrees Fahrenheit). After several versions of these tests, the students could identify which components would satisfy the thermal requirements of flight tests. 

Credit: Penn State

According to Okutsu, at the highest point in the balloon's trajectory, the temperature of the air becomes too cold for some electronic components to function. 

“To ensure that their equipment will work — or even survive — the students used dry ice and solvents to create a cooling bath that could simulate the conditions of the stratosphere, typically around minus 56 degrees Celsius (minus 69 degrees Fahrenheit)," he said. "Through these tests, they could identify components that would work for the duration of the balloon flight.” 

The students also design a structure using computer-aided design tools such as SolidWorks or Fusion 360 and fabricate prototypes via 3D-printed plastic structures for flight models, and computer numerical control or CNC-machined aluminum structures for lab models. They do some coding for the Arduino microcontroller and obtain an amateur radio license to operate the transmitter used during the flight. 

Abington engineering

Penn State Abington student Cezary Krysztofiak used a CNC machine to fabricate an aluminum structure for CubeSat within the required tolerance of < 0.1 mm. A CNC, or computer numerical control machine, is a high-precision tool that is computer-controlled and makes repeated, accurate movements.  

Credit: Penn State

Students who worked on the CubeSat project during the 2018-2019 traveled to Washington, D.C., to present their work at a student paper competition held by American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

About Penn State Abington
Penn State Abington provides an affordable, accessible and high-impact education resulting in the success of a diverse student body. It is committed to student success through innovative approaches to 21st-century public higher education within a world-class research university. With about 3,700 students, Penn State Abington is a residential campus that offers baccalaureate degrees in 21 majors, undergraduate research, the Schreyer honors program, NCAA Division III athletics and more.