On February 18, 2016 NASA announced its selections for the seventh round of its CubeSat Launch Initiative that “provides opportunities for small satellite payloads to fly on rockets planned for upcoming launches.” NNU’s project, MakerSat: Idaho’s ISS-based CubeSat Research Platform, will be the first satellite or spacecraft ever built in space and the first satellite from an Idaho university.
Led by NNU engineering faculty members and principal investigators Dr. Stephen Parke and Dr. Joshua Griffin, the MakerSat research team is designing a new type of four-inch, cube-shaped satellite called a “CubeSat” to be fabricated and deployed into Earth’s orbit directly from the International Space Station (ISS).
CubeSats have been designed and built by several universities and companies over the past decade to study space sciences and to demonstrate new space technologies. However, until now, these CubeSats have had to be launched into space on board rockets and space capsules.
The MakerSat will be a technology proof-of-concept demo for microgravity additive manufacturing and assembly of spacecraft. This project will develop viable manufacturing methods for the ISS to enable future space industry, facilitate a commercial space economy, and advance the economic growth of the United States.
The satellite's structural frame will be 3D printed on the ISS and then snapped together with solar cell and electronics boards by the astronaut crew and deployed directly into orbit. NNU team member Mitch Kamstra explained, “Printing the frame of the CubeSat while in orbit means not having to design for a high-G launch allowing for the use of a lighter material and a more delicate and optimized design.”
Dr. Stephen Parke commented, “NNU is the first university to partner with NASA and MIS to design a CubeSat specifically for space manufacture. It is so exciting for our students to have an opportunity to literally make history!”
About January 2017, the MakerSat electronic boards will be launched to the ISS aboard a NASA resupply rocket. Shortly thereafter, the new ISS 3D printer will be used to print the MakerSat frame. It will then be assembled on board and gently placed directly into orbit from the ISS airlock for a mission of up to one year.
A second ground launch, which is facilitated by NNU’s selection for the CubeSat Launch Initiative, is tentatively scheduled for December 2017. A MakerSat will be launched into a sun-synchronous 550km high polar orbit aboard the inaugural flight of Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne rocket.