Weber State College has teamed with an organization of amateur radio and satellite buffs in a project to produce pint-sized satellites that can be launched for a fraction of the cost of larger devices.
The first launch of one of the 20-pound satellites is planned for early 1989.Weber State joined with AMSAT, an international amateur organization of radio and satellite buffs, in the project.
AMSAT formed a partnership earlier this year with Weber State to help with a variety of satellite projects over the next decade, said Robert Twiggs, director of WSC's Center for Aerospace Technology.
WSC will also serve as AMSAT's North American ground station.
Twiggs said AMSAT officials came up with the idea of producing small, low-cost satellites that could be carried into space by rockets transporting larger satellites.
That idea is particularly attractive now, Twiggs said, because of the uncertainty about future space shuttle launch dates.
But he said AMSAT officials knew there was extra room on rockets being used to carry large payloads into space. Each Microsat will weigh 20 pounds, its square body about the size of a gallon milk jug. It will have four slanted, 6-inch legs and a 15-inch antenna.
They can easily fit into leftover rocket space and be kicked into orbit as the primary payload is carried further into space, Twiggs said.
"The exciting thing is not the satellite itself," he said. "It's the ability of the Microsat to fly and the cost of the launches."
Normally, production and launch of a commercial satellite could cost anywhere from $10 million to $200 million. But Twiggs said a Microsat could be built and launched for a commercial company for as little as $250,000.
Twiggs said the Microsats will also be useful to organizations that want to test the feasibility of satellite projects on a small scale before spending millions of dollars on a full-sized craft.
The Microsats will fly in a polar orbit 500 miles above the Earth and have a life expectancy of 50 years, Twiggs said. The sophisticated microelectronics should last 10 to 15 years, he added.
Each of the first four initial Microsats will look about the same, but will have different payloads. Along with WSC, the three other Microsat owners are the AMSAT groups in North America, Brazil and Argentina.
Weber State plans to have three types of experiments aboard its satellite. One will test a small satellite's ability to process pictures of the Earth, and a second will examine parts of the atmosphere such as the ozone layer.
The third will involve beaming pictures up to the satellite, and then having the satellite relay the pictures in digital form to another site.
Twiggs said building the satellites will be a joint venture, with Weber State developing certain sensors and a receiver, while AMSAT develops a microcomputer. Each organization will share its equipment with the other. He said WSC engineering students would be involved in building the crafts.
Total cost of the project for Weber State is about $120,000, about half of which is provided by a grant from the State Centers of Excellence. Twiggs said college officials are looking for additional funds to cover the rest of the cost.
About 95 percent of the design work is completed, and parts of the Microsats are now being assembled, Twiggs said.
The first satellite must be finished by December so that it can be flown along with the three other Microsats to French Guinea for launch aboard an Arianespace rocket Jan. 28.
Twiggs said the college will get a chance to launch another Microsat in about two years.