Laurel university project offers simple solution for satellite communication – a smartphone

Laurel university project offers simple solution for satellite communication – a smartphone
Capitol Technology University student Carlos Del Cid, right, works with a NASA technician to integrate a satellite communications project he and his classmates built into a rocket launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in August. (Rishabh Maharaja / Baltimore Sun)

The text message appeared on Aaron Bush's smart watch right on time — 31/2 minutes after a rudimentary device he and classmates had engineered lifted off from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility.

It was only a single letter, but what was important was how it was relayed. The students at Capitol Technology University in Laurel were communicating with an Android smartphone flown to the edge of space.


What started as a class project led to this test to prove the concept for a new and simple way to control a spacecraft from the ground — without sophisticated radio communications systems. Instead, it's based on the same Wi-Fi and cellular technology that connects phones and tablets around the world.

It could be the basis for more interactive satellite technology that makes it both simpler and cheaper to gather observations from space, said Rishabh Maharaja, a systems engineer for Honeywell at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and an adjunct instructor at Capitol who led the project.

"It basically proved something even as small as a cellphone and something as simple as Gmail could be used to get data directly from a space-bound payload," Maharaja said. "This is leaps and bounds in a different direction from the way traditional satellites are flown."

The August launch was the culmination of a two-year project that began in Maharaja's class, Introduction to Space. He conceived using everyday technology as an alternative to traditional radio-based satellite communications and enlisted a group of students to make it reality.

Under Maharaja's concept, an LG smartphone served as the brains of the satellite. A device known as an Iridium Go, which can turn any smartphone into a satellite phone, kept the satellite connected to the Internet — making it accessible by any other Internet-connected device on Earth.

They got their first evidence that the idea might work after two tests on balloons raised about 15 miles above Earth's surface in April and May of 2014. They programmed the smartphone so that when it received text messages from the ground, it snapped photos of Earth from above, showing the clouds below and the blue haze of the planet's atmosphere.

But the real test came in August, when the project was among a half-dozen university projects chosen for the Wallops launch. Their technology was part of a nearly 900-pound payload carried nearly 100 miles above Earth's surface aboard a suborbital sounding rocket — high enough to reach the edge of space, but without entering orbit and instead falling back to Earth.

For the launch, the technology had to be contained in a slice of a rocket, a cylinder 11 inches wide and 5.5 inches tall and about 15 pounds — not less than 14.5 pounds and not more than 15.5 pounds. It also had to be balanced in a way that wouldn't affect the rocket's trajectory.

This time, instead of trying to take a picture or otherwise collect some data from space, the team decided on a simpler task — programming the smartphone to beam the letters of the alphabet back to Earth, one by one.

"We were like, we don't want it to get bogged down in those precious few minutes we have in space," said Bush, the project's student team leader, who has since graduated and now works at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

When the first of those messages arrived, Bush and five of his classmates erupted in whoops and cheers.

"We didn't care, honestly, if our payload survived," he said. "The whole point of our mission was to see if we could command a rocket while it was up in space."

Their success was unusual for a student space project. Only 21 percent of first attempts for university projects launching what are known as cubesats — small rectangular satellites launched in batches — have been successful since 2000, according to records on the missions kept by Michael Swartwout, an aerospace and mechanical engineering professor at St. Louis University.

"It is not trivial to make those links, the connections in space, for something like this," said Ann Darrin, managing executive of the space exploration sector at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, which was not associated with the Capitol Technology University project.


It's also unusual for students to be exploring satellite communications, said David Kusnierkiewicz, chief engineer for the Hopkins lab's space department.

"I thought it was very clever and inventive on their part," he said. "I can picture somebody sitting in a Starbucks on their smartphone talking to their satellite and getting data back. It's a pretty cool concept."

Maharaja is hoping to explore the idea further. He is pursuing a patent for a simple computer system that could replace the smartphone as the brains of the satellite but still uses the same basic Internet-based communication technology.

Meanwhile, the smartphone-based concept could be stretched beyond what the August launch accomplished, potentially capturing audio, video, or infrared images of Earth.

"We think it can be even cheaper and it can be done better, at much better speeds," Bush said.

But for now, the students are satisfied with proving that a large team and sophisticated, expensive technology aren't requirements to running a satellite.

"You don't have to have a NASA clean room or anything," Bush said.