Rowan first N.J. university to send satellite into space as part of NASA program

Rowan first N.J. university to send satellite into space as part of NASA program


“We’re basically sending a Kleenex box into space.”

That’s how Russell Trafford described a project that three professors and more than 100 undergraduate and graduate students in the Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering have been working on for more than 2 ½ years.

Size-wise, that was a pretty good take by Trafford, who with fellow Ph.D. candidate Adam Fifth serves as project manager. The heart of the project is a 4x4x4-inch cube.

But content wise, the work that has absorbed teams in and out of Engineering Clinics is a far cry from the little boxes that hold pastel-colored tissues.

First from a New Jersey university

They have been developing a CubeSat research nanosatellite, weighing less than three pounds, as part of NASA’s seventh round of its CubeSat Launch Initiative. Rowan is the only college or university in New Jersey ever selected for the program.

The Rowan CubeSat, called MemSat, will evaluate a newer type of memory technology to determine whether it is better than the most common technology used today, comparing the behavior of memristor memory devices against standard, silicon-based memory technologies to determine potential advantages and/or disadvantages of memristors for space and other applications. Among other things, the team will measure the effects of heat and radiation on the memristor.

Memristors are electronic devices in which information is stored in the resistance state of the device and can be retained during power-off modes, allowing for energy-efficient power shutoff as well as system resiliency during power failures.

Electrical and computer engineering doctoral student Trafford, 25, from Cape May, said a memristor could enable someone to store the contents of the entire Library of Congress on a flash drive.

Astronauts to deploy

The Rowan team, led by Drs. Sangho Shin, John Schmalzel and Robert Krchnavek, expects to deliver its auxiliary payload to NASA’s mission integration company, NanoRacks, by the end of February. The firm will in turn deliver it to NASA, which will launch it on an Orbiotal A-T-K Cygnus rocket from the Wallops Flight Facility south of the Maryland-Virginia border, sending it on a resupply mission to the International Space Station tentatively in the early spring.

“When the astronauts have a chance, they will deploy the CubeSat,” said Schmalzel, founding chair of the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering. “That entails a robotic arm dispensing it into space. Hopefully it will still be there for about 12 months before it burns up.”

Once in space, MemSat will obtain data as it orbits the Earth, referring that data back to Engineering Hall to an 18-foot antenna on the roof of the building. The antenna will transmit data to a radio/computer setup in Room 309 of Engineering Hall.

NASA chose Rowan for the program in 2016, along with 19 other projects from 12 states. These projects comprise work done by universities, non-profit organizations and NASA field centers, including California Polytechnic University; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California; NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia; and the United States Naval Academy.

Benefitting students and science

“We were given a fascinating opportunity to deploy something we build in house into orbit. Besides contributing to the assessment of emerging technology, our CubeSat project will make it possible for our engineering program to include future nanosatellite spacecraft systems,” said Shin.

Rowan electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering and chemistry students, some working on hardware, some on software, have focused on the project during Tuesday and Thursday Engineering Clinics and also as part of independent projects.

Tanner Smith, 20, of Cherry Hill, is a junior electrical and computer engineering major who sees value in the present work for his future career.

“At Rowan, we have the clinic system, which really helps because it gives you practical experience.” Like his classmates, he had from about 150 clinic projects to select, and he looked for one that would be a good fit for his software experience. “I saw an interesting opportunity where I could be a part of a project where I would send a satellite into space,” he said.

Brian Dixon, 25, of South Brunswick, who is pursuing a master’s in electrical and computer engineering, is one of about 10 students working on MemSat this semester.

He appreciates the chance to conduct hands-on work on the project, which he said would not be an opportunity at every university.

“There is a pile of parts over there that’s going to be put together and put in a rocket and thrown out of an airlock,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

He’s excited about this project in particular, he said, “One, because space is cool. And two, I’m never going to get into space, but something I’m building is going into space.”

For additional information on NASA's CubeSat Launch Initiative, visit: