Space aces

SCU boasts the country’s only student-run program for running satellites on the road.

Space aces
The trailer was designed by Samira Almendras '14. Photo by Charles Barry

Santa Clara’s student-run satellite program was already cool. Now it’s gone mobile.
At first glance, the 28-foot trailer parked outside SCU’s Robotics Systems Lab looks like something destined for a cosmic RV spring break—or maybe Burning Man, the epic annual middle-of-the-desert arts fest, where its starry intergalactic graphics fit in well with aspirations to transcend the here and now. But the words along its sides, above an image of a skyward-gazing satellite dish, spell out a more enigmatic story: Santa Clara University Mobile Mission Control.

Inside is a lab-to-go, with the tools and technology for taking the country’s only student-run program for professionally operating NASA’s small satellites on the road. The SCU robotics lab has long maintained a mission control for just such assignments on campus, but in a business where the window to work is limited to the brief span in its orbit that a satellite streaks overhead, it pays to be mobile. “The satellites we control for NASA and our industry partners only fly over the local area a few times a day and only for a few minutes each time,” says Chris Kitts, the head of the robotics lab and an associate professor of engineering. “We now have the potential to more than double our communication time.”

Not that the new trailer will solve all the lab’s logistical needs. SCU engineering students have traveled as far away as the Marshall Islands and El Salvador to staff satellite missions—and that has a cool factor all its own. But Mobile Mission Control is definitely going to turn some heads on the interstate as it carries an SCU crew to places in Oregon and Southern California, likely destinations for assignment. The lab may see its first action this summer. When it’s not on the road, the trailer makes its home at the SCU robotics lab, a stone’s throw from the iconic Moffett Field Hangar One at NASA Ames Research Park in Mountain View.

The links

The lab houses five communication links and can sense its position and automatically calibrate the pointing systems for antennae.

The rush

The largest antenna is 2.4 meters in diameter and can communicate with and control a satellite as small as a bottle of wine going at speeds of 17,400 mph, 280 miles away. The only thing that comes close to the rush, says Mike Rasay, ’01, M.S. ’07—a Ph.D. student who has been working on SCU satellite controls for a decade—is being in a sporting championship.

The flush

Some things are critical when you’re on the road. The lab has a toilet, shower, stove, and two bunks to allow a crew to stay in the field as long as needed. “It gives us the ability to move to the ideal location,” says Jake Hedlund ’13, a master’s student.

The dish

The big radar dish pictured on its side is one of two 3-meter satellite trackers located atop Bannan Engineering, home to campus mission control for more than a decade—though with the growth of the engineering program in recent years, mission control is soon to move to an off-campus site to make way for classroom space.

+ The bonus

Designed to control not only satellites but fleets of student-built flying and water-borne drones.

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