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Undergraduate Researchers

James Gerity& Tyler Schmitz (not pictured), Physics

Cloud-CubeSat: Designing a Picosatellite
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Vanderlei Martins

At this time, measurements of cloud structure (vapor content, etc.) are difficult to obtain. Generally, these data are collected during in situ aircraft experiments, which typically last several hours. This data snapshot is therefore incomplete; the structure of the cloud has changed by the time the measurements are complete. The goal of the Cloud-CubeSat project is to design and create a picosatellite (10x10x30cm, 3kg) to take these measurements from orbit around the Earth, using Cal Poly's CubeSat satellite standard as a base. Unlike previous CubeSats, this satellite has very specific pointing requirements, necessitating a sophisticated attitude control system. Such systems, although frequently implemented on larger satellites, are virtually unproven on the scale of a CubeSat. Using hardware and algorithms designed by engineering students at Olin College, our goal is to assemble a prototype of Cloud-CubeSat and construct a testbed to investigate the problem of three-axis stability.

How did you find your mentor for this project?

Tyler and I both took Dr. Martins' Physics 224 class, and regularly discussed research with him.  He noted our interest and invited us to join his Cloud-CubeSat project.

How did you know this was the project you wanted to do?

I knew this project was something I wanted to be a part of because it brings so many disciplines together, combining the engineering and design aspects of the satellite's actual design with the goals of atmospheric physics.

Is this your first independent research project?

Yes.

Do you get course credit for this work?

Tyler and I both received credit for our work on this project in the Spring 2009 semester.

How much time do you put into it?

During the Spring 2009 semester, Tyler and I met meekly with Dr. Martins and other individuals to discuss the research material, and directed our own research on other days.  During the Summer, Tyler and I have both been awarded a JCET Fellowship, and have been continuing our research under that.

How did you hear about the Undergraduate Research Award program?

I first heard about the program from discussions about URCAD in the Society of Physics Students group, and Dr. Martins suggested both Tyler and I apply for a URA after we began working with him.

What academic background did you have before you started?

Both Tyler and I had a few introductory physics courses under our belts and a strong math/computer science background when we started our work.

Was the application difficult to do?

The only difficult thing about it was describing such a neat project in such a small space.

How much did your mentor help you with this?

Dr. Martins has read many URA proposals in previous years, and he offered his opinion on our proposal. 

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research? 

Treat research as a normal topic for conversation.  Ask around and learn about a lot of different projects in a lot of different fields.  Read some scholarly journals in your own time.

What are your career goals?

Nothing specific, but definitely research-oriented.

What has been the hardest part about your research?

Learning how to hunt for and obtain very obscure and niche research material.

What was the most unexpected thing?

The independence; directing my own focus, selecting my own topics for research, etc.

How does your research relate to your work in other classes?

Exploring the dynamics of orienting a spacecraft involve a lot of mathematical manipulation, physical models, and computer simulation, all of which have been covered in my prior and current classwork.