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Students Build FASTRAC Satellite
Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate provides support
for the University of Texas at Austin’s premier venture into the cosmos.
By Michael P. Kleiman / Air Force Research Laboratory, Space Vehicles Directorate Public Affairs

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M., Sept. 15, 2006 – Approximately 18 months after edging out 12 other college teams in the Nanosat-3 competition, The University of Texas at Austin’s winning structure arrived at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate, Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., in June for integration and testing prior to launch.

Referred to as the Formation Autonomy Spacecraft with Thrust, Relnav, Attitude and Crosslink (FASTRAC), the student-constructed satellite, weighing 110 pounds, will split into two separate units following lift off for formation flying in low Earth orbit about 220 miles above the planet’s surface.

FASTRAC serves as the second space flight opportunity for the University Nanosatellite Program, which began in 1999.

Initiated by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Space Vehicles Directorate, the project provides U.S. colleges and universities with an incentive to design, as well as to develop satellites for potential experimental missions.

Each participating school receives up to $55,000 per year in funding from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to build a vehicle capable of operating in the cosmos.

As program administrator, the Space Vehicles Directorate also offers design support to the competing teams and organizes all competition events, as well as conducts design reviews, and provides the flight testing and post-launch supervision on the selected vehicle.

“The University Nanosatellite Program is raising the next generation of aerospace industry workers,” said Scott Franke, University Nanosatellite Program manager, Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate.  “We are building expertise in satellites and other spacecraft, and we want to grow that expertise in this country since the project is only open to U.S. colleges.” 

Planned for a six-month mission, FASTRAC, measuring about 2 feet wide and 2 feet high, features two primary experiments, a Global Positioning System Relative Navigation Experiment and the Micro-discharge Plasma Thruster. 

During operational assessments performed at Kirtland Air Force Base, the GPS trial proved successful.  Employing off the shelf technology, the spacecraft’s twin sections demonstrated acknowledgement of each portion’s position so as to perform formation flying.

Slated to propel the satellite autonomously at certain attitudes, the on-orbit thruster trial will be performed until all fuel has been expired.

Meanwhile, functional testing of the spacecraft progresses with an end date estimated for December.

See Caption.
Jamin Greenbaum, middle, The University of Texas at Austin's Nanosatellite-3 FASTRAC program manager and Eric Rogstad, right, The University of Texas at Austin's Nanosatellite-4 project manager, assisted by a Jackson and Tull engineer, prepare one of the FASTRAC halves for structural testing at Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. U.S. Air Force photo

One month before, program personnel will brief the Department of Defense’s Space Exploration Review Board, convening in Arlington, Va., in an effort to secure a launch vehicle for FASTRAC.

Nonetheless, other potential lift off options, dependent on allotted space and timing, are currently being investigated.

“The University Nanosatellite Program is unique.  It is, to my knowledge, the only federal government-sponsored program that is open nationally for U.S. university participation,” said Franke.  “The Air Force Research Laboratory has really recognized the ground-breaking nature of this program.”

Following launch, the FASTRAC team will monitor the Nanosat-3 mission at a ground station located on The University of Texas at Austin’s campus.

In addition, a spacecraft operations center has been planned for inclusion in the school’s Aerospace Engineering Building.

While a core group of 15 Lone Star State collegians await FASTRAC’s voyage into the cosmos, the University Nanosatellite Program has accomplished the majority of reviews on the 11 institutes of higher learning seeking the Nanosat-4 award, which will be announced in spring 2007.

Unlike the previous contest, the panel of judges, comprised of representatives from the aerospace industry, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as well as from Air Force Researdch Laboratory, could choose two teams to test their hardware in the cosmos. 

“Our program is a technology incubator.  It is a way for the students to try out new ideas at a low cost,” said Franke.  “It is a creative and risk-taking environment where failure is an option, not a problem.”

Additional information on the University of Texas at Austin’s FASTRAC can be found at the following Web address:
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Apr. 18, 2015
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