A team of University of Arizona students are working to better understand our atmosphere with a device smaller than a microwave. Their CatSat, a miniature satellite, is planned to probe the ionosphere – where Earth's atmosphere meets space. The small satellite will use an inflatable antenna developed by Tucson-based company Freefall Aerospace.
All spacecraft require antennas to transmit and receive signals, allowing for communication with Earth. Yet, the capabilities of miniature antennas have historically been restricted, as they can only carry very small antennas. Signals from these small antennas can take days to finally reach Earth. CatSat's inflatable antenna, invented at the UA and further developed by Freefall Aerospace, combats this problem thanks to its lightweight material that tightly folds within the spacecraft. After launch, CatSat will stabilize its orientation so that it can eventually deploy the stowed antenna.
ECE alum Terrance Pat currently serves as Freefall Aerospace's RF Design Engineer, and in 2020, Kenneth VonBehren Endowed Professor for ECE Marwan Krunz was the company's chief technologist.
While working on space hardware, the students encountered difficulties that sometimes forced them to change their plans and designs.
"Many pieces on the CatSat weren't our first choice," said ECE graduate student Del Spangler, the project's lead electrical engineer. "While some of the hardware isn't necessarily meant for space, we've still been able to make it work."
Other major setbacks included a damaged piece of equipment and a faulty battery that delayed development by six months.
"At moments, working on the CatSat has been frustrating, as engineering often is," Spangler said. "But overcoming all of the difficult problems we've faced has been a really good feeling."
Once CatSat is assigned a launch date, expected later this year, a Firefly Alpha rocket will lift it into an orbit 340 miles above Earth, the approximate distance from Phoenix to Los Angeles. The satellite will remain in a sun-synchronous orbit, a path that will almost always keep it in direct sunlight and out of Earth's shadow.