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Fifty Students, Eleven Majors, One Mission


By Samantha Harvey

Published Jan 1, 2015 8:00 AM

Constructing the first satellite built entirely at UCLA was a team effort.


Illustration by Oliver Latyk

A satellite the size of a loaf of bread. Designed to conduct research on space weather. Built entirely at UCLA.

Over the last several years, dozens of students — with majors as varied as mechanical engineering, political science and humanities — have devoted thousands of hours to designing the mission concept for the Electron Losses and Fields Investigation (ELFIN) CubeSat — the first satellite ever built from start to finish at UCLA. “It’s a hugely diverse team,” says Emmanuel Masongsong ’04, an administrative specialist on the project. “It takes students of many different interests and experiences to make this project a reality.”

Projected to launch in late 2016 or early 2017, ELFIN will resolve a critical space physics problem. The satellite will determine how solar wind particles and radiation behave in Earth’s environment. The topic is of growing concern because magnetic storms can wreak havoc on space infrastructures — such as GPS and communication and weather satellites — and even damage the electrical grid on Earth.

“With the advent of space tourism and the increased reliance on satellites, understanding space weather is becoming increasingly important,” says Vassilis Angelopoulos M.S. ’88, Ph.D. ’93, a professor in the UCLA Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences (EPSS) and ELFIN’s principal investigator. “We need to study the electron loss process to assemble the full picture of how space radiation is driven by solar particles.”

The students devoted three years to the project before receiving any significant funding. Then, in 2013, the U.S. Air Force awarded them $110,000 to continue development and purchase much-needed parts. Another break followed when NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) and the Low-Cost Access to Space program guaranteed a launch spot for ELFIN as a secondary payload, carpooling to space with a much larger satellite. Finally, the largest support came last May when NASA and the National Science Foundation jointly gave $1.2 million — enough to put the satellite in orbit and operate it for six months from the UCLA Mission Operations Center, now being installed on campus.

The undergraduates are designing, building and testing the “spacecraft bus” that includes the frame, solar/battery power systems, communication, altitude control and boom deployment. The same team also is responsible for thermal control to manage the extremes of hot and cold in space, as well as the electronics that connect everything.

Meanwhile, a group of undergrads, graduate students and staff from EPSS and the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP) is overseeing the project and building the scientific payload, which includes two energetic particle detectors and a magnetometer. The success of these instruments depends in part on the spacecraft subsystems built by the undergraduate team to store and transmit data back to Earth.

The building of ELFIN is just one part of the mission. The students also will help monitor the satellite’s health and status via radio base stations on the roof of UCLA’s Knudsen Hall and at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

ELFIN crowns UCLA’s 40-year legacy of space research and building space instruments for NASA and other international missions.

“We are building a team of students and staff with the mentality that there is nothing that we can’t do,” says Chris Shaffer, ELFIN’s student project manager. “A banner stating that ‘Failure is not an option’ has been hanging in our lab ever since we started.”