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International Space Station To Deploy Satellite Built By SLU Students

Connor Highlander, a senior at St. Louis University, tests the Argus-2 satellite.
Michael Swartout | St. Louis University
Connor Highlander, a senior at St. Louis University, was one of 45 students who built the Argus-2 satellite that the International Space Station will deploy into space.

A team of engineering students at St. Louis University this week will be listening for signals from a six-pound, tissue-box-size satellite in outer space. 

About 45 undergraduate students have spent nearly three years building the Argus-2 satellite. The International Space Station will deploy it and eight other satellites Wednesday as a part of a NASA science education program

The satellite will capture images of Earth and demonstrate how well memory storage devices perform in space, said Jeffrey Kelley, a senior majoring in aerospace engineering at SLU.

“It’s been exciting, terrifying and frustrating at the same time,” Kelley said. “I feel like I’m doing engineering now rather than having to wait until I graduate. There’s so many parts of the engineering process that really can’t be taught or captured in a classroom.”

The project is an opportunity for students to learn how to build a device that can withstand the harsh environment of outer space, said Michael Swartout, a SLU aerospace engineering professor who advised the students. 

"Undergraduate students are making the decisions, they’re soldering the boards, they’re putting things together, they’re writing the codes, they’re making it work, and they’re getting up into space and operating it,” Swartout said. 

A cube-shaped satellite called Argus-2 built by St. Louis University students.
Credit Connor Highlander | St. Louis University
The Argus-2 satellite weighs about six pounds and is about the size of a tissue box. Students designed it to carry an SD card to measure the effects of space radiation and a camera to take images of the Earth.

Argus-2 will run an artificial intelligence program with a camera that will snap photos of the Earth. It also contains a SD card that students will check on to find out if space radiation could corrupt files. 

“[Radiation effects] could change 'one' from a 'zero,' so you’d get speckles on your photograph, which isn’t so terrible,” Swartwout said. "But if that ‘one’ was related to the operating of your spacecraft, that number changing may have more important consequences.”

Swartout’s research focuses on errors that can occur with space missions, particularly more recent missions. He also oversaw the development of Argus-1, which fell into the Pacific Ocean in 2014 due to a rocket failure.

“I’m excited, but really at the moment I’m terrified because until the moment we get that first contact, I’ll be worried that something has gone wrong,” he said. “If your car or phone is not working, you open it out, you make those changes, you close it up, test it out and hopefully it works. With a spacecraft, once it’s gone, there’s no tweaking.” 

The satellite has been turned off since August, when the SLU team brought the spacecraft to space company NanoRacks in Houston. NanoRacks took Argus-2 to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, where it was launched into space in November. 

It could take seven to 15 hours for the satellite to recharge, turn on and signal to an antenna at SLU that it’s working.

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.