Crash & learn: the satellite project boosted by Big Island will get a second launch

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A satellite built with the help of students from Big Island was destroyed earlier this month in a rocket launch, but the project will soon have a second chance.

In 2019, the University of Hawaii at the Manoa Institute of Astronomy partnered with the Hilo-based Hawaii Museum of Science and Technology to develop a miniature satellite, called CubeSat, which would be launched. in space during the inaugural flight of Firefly Alpha, an unmanned drone. launcher developed by the private company Firefly Aerospace.

Firefly Alpha launched on September 3 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with the CubeSat on board.

In less than three minutes, the rocket and all of its payload were destroyed after a catastrophic engine failure.

“This was the first launch of Firefly Alpha, and the fact is, early launches don’t have the best track record,” said avionics engineer Amber Imai-Hong of UH-Manoa’s Hawaii Space Flight Laboratory, who developed the satellite.

Despite the loss of the satellite, Imai-Hong said HSFL and HSTM are working on a replacement that will be part of the Firefly Alpha 2 payload.

The two satellites – called Hiapo and Hiapo 2.0 – are intended to take measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field, while serving as an introduction to aerospace design for students.

Imai-Hong said Hiapo was developed after HSTM was selected as one of 26 participants to provide a 10 cubic centimeter satellite for the Firefly Alpha payload. In order to develop the satellite at a lower cost, HSTM has partnered with HSFL to create Project POKE, an initiative to develop a low-cost CubeSat kit.

While most CubeSats cost around $ 120,000 to build, Imai-Hong said Hiapo was built with spare parts.

“As you might expect, assembling aftermarket electronic components doesn’t always give you the results you want,” Imai-Hong said. “But we worked on it.”

In 2020, UH-Manoa received a $ 500,000 grant from NASA to develop low-cost CubeSat kits for use as undergraduate projects. Hiapo 2.0 will be built using one of these kits, Imai-Hong said.

Imai-Hong said more than 100 UH students were involved in building Hiapo from the design phase to the final testing.

Meanwhile, HSTM director Christian Wong said about 30 middle and high school students in Hilo have taken virtual classes to learn more about the satellite.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab engineer Imai-Hong and Heather Bottom mentored the students in design and project management skills, even using a clean room provided by UH. This process led Wong to decide on the name of the satellite. “Hiapo” means “eldest child,” reflecting the mentor-student relationship that created the satellite, Imai-Hong said.

Imai-Hong said she has higher hopes for Firefly Alpha 2, which she believes could launch later this year.

“But whatever happens, we’ll learn a lot more,” Imai-Hong said. “None of this is wasted.”

“The launch was always great, even though it ended badly,” Wong said. “It was such a fantastic day, I had such a proud feeling to see the rocket on the pad, knowing that it had a satellite that we had been working on for two years.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at [email protected]

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