Satellite built by Brown University students ends a successful journey

Education

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — An amazing journey, made possible by Brown University students, has come to an end.

On Dec. 26, EQUiSat, a satellite built by students, burned upon re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. But despite the loss, the project is still considered a success, since the satellite lasted much longer than the designers initially anticipated.

The first estimates had the satellite orbiting the earth up for about six months, but it ended up surviving for more than two-and-a-half years.

Rick Fleeter, Brown University professor and advisor of the Space Engineering student group, believes the satellite outlasted their estimates because of its simplicity.

“Space for everybody. Do something simple enough that anyone could participate and you didn’t have to be a super expert or anything,” Fleeter said.

The satellite is not only simple, it’s also remarkably small. Fleeter said it’s about the size of a grapefruit.

“It’s about the smallest object that the Air Force RADAR people can track,” he explained. “Anything smaller, they would not be able to see it.”

As a student at Brown from 2014 to 2018, Hunter Ray helped design and build the satellite. He said that one of the challenges was fitting all of the equipment and wires into the very tiny space.

“Very carefully you just squish it down, it’s kind of like stuffing a suitcase, but we got it in,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Brown University

So why was the satellite launched in the first place?

Part of the answer comes down to testing batteries. The type of Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries on board the EQUiSat had never flown space before.

To test them out, Ray said they made a flashlight the main output source.

“It was the best way to do that,” he said. “The light was so bright, we had to make sure that it would not blind the astronauts who were on the [International] Space Station if it inadvertently turned on.”

With the stakes so high, Ray was fielding phone calls from some very important people.

“I was studying for some final, and I get a call from NASA,” he recalled. “They said ‘Hey, we are just making sure you got those numbers that we asked for,’ and here I was, an undergraduate student working in some physics class.”

The satellite team now knows the flashlight and batteries worked, but they aren’t sure if anyone saw it on the ground.

Fleeter hopes this successful mission will dim the perception that exploring space is only for rocket scientists.

“I think it was a good real-world example of how diversity can really work,” he said. “We had an extremely diverse group of people, not all of them were even students.”

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