NASA Ames Suborbital Flight Communication

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Sponsors ISGC, NASA Ames Research Center
Team Name SCUBEE: Space Communication Utilizing Backbone Existing nEtworks
Duration Fall 2018 - Spring 2019
Faculty Advisors
  • Dr. Feng Li [ECE]
  • Dan Cordon [ME]
  • Melissa Bogert
  • Marcus Murbach [NASA ARC]
  • Forrest Tanner [NASA ARC]
Team Members
  • Hunter Barnett [CS]
  • Avery Brock [EE]
  • Hunter Kanniainen [ME]
  • Tim White [ME]
  • Yi Yang [EE]
TES-6 ISS Deployment.jpg

While the barriers to space flight have been reduced due to the privatization of launch vehicles, two large hurdles remain for those seeking to conduct research in space: orbit-to-ground communication, and reentry recovery. Our work seeks to reduce these barriers through research in these areas.

Communication costs can be reduced by using consumer satellite phone modems, specifically the Iridium Core 9523, to give satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) access to a constant internet connection. Satellites and other devices operating at or below LEO and equipped with such a module would be able to stream data to Earth without the need for users to apply for frequency licenses, while also eliminating the need for prohibitively expensive radio equipment.

Additionally, our research looks to solve the current lack of recoverability of small satellites. Through the development of a Tube Deployed Reentry Vehicle (TDRV), we will allow satellites a means of surviving reentry so that equipment can be reused, or physical samples collected and returned to Earth.

Iridium 9523 Carrier Module

Continuing work started by the Technical Education Satellite (TechEdSat) research group led by Marcus Murbach at NASA-ARC, we are utilizing the Iridium satellite constellation to communicate with satellites in LEO. The TechEdSat team has demonstrated that Iridium modules such as the 9602 Short Burst Data (SBD) transceiver are fully functional in orbit and are able to communicate with the Iridium constellation. The next step in this research is to develop a carrier module for the Iridium Core 9523 modem that adapts the core for use in a cube satellite. The Iridium Core supports a 2.4 kbit/s data stream compared to the 9602’s 340-byte packets. The 9523 is currently used in NASA’s Reentry Breakup Recorder (REBR) to transmit reentry data while falling at sub-sonic velocity post-reentry. As such, we believe the 9523 shall also operate normally in LEO and provide a stable data connection.

TDRV Placement in SPQR

The NASA-ARC TechEdSat group has also been working to develop a three-stage Small Payload Quick Return (SPQR) device designed to return small payloads from the ISS back to Earth in a temperature and pressure-controlled environment. The middle stage of this device is developed under this project and consists of the TDRV.

Project Background[edit]

A multi-year project, the goals of this research team have been incrementally furthered by each successive design team over the course of nearly five years. Due to the highly ambitious nature of this project, it is likely this project will be continued for several years into the future before it is flight-ready. This section outlines the prior work done by past senior design teams and NASA.

NASA Ames TechEdSat Group[edit]

Led by Marcus Murbach at NASA Ames Research Center, the Technology Education Satellite (TechEdSat) research group seeks to develop and test technologies to help increase access to space research, and to enable the reentry recovery of small satellites and payloads. Their main goals are to test and improve use of Iridium Communications modules in low Earth orbit (LEO) to reduce communication costs, and the development of a Small Payload Quick Return (SPQR) device under their Sub-Orbital Aerodynamic Re-entry Experiments (SOREX) flight series. Ultimately, the group seeks to 'evaluate, demonstrate, and validate new technologies' before they are used on a larger scale in space. The TechEdSat group has had a longstanding relationship with the University of Idaho, traditionally hosting UI student interns and sponsoring a Capstone design project each year.

SPQR Device[edit]

Jon and Tanner assemble an Exo-Brake at NASA Ames

The SPQR device consists of three primary stages designed to allow the recovery of small payloads or satellites from orbit. The current goal for the SPQR is to allow sample return from the ISS, with eventual use being geared towards landing small probes and rovers on Mars. The TechEdSat group is currently testing the first stage of the device, the Exo-Brake drag device. Several TES satellites have been equipped with various Exo-Brake designs to test their de-orbiting abilities. Work on the latter stages of the device has been passed to teams at various universities such as the University of Idaho and San Jose State University.

Deployment of TES Exo-Brake after being launched from the ISS

The SPQR first stage consists of an Exo-Brake equipped vehicle that is released from either the ISS or a larger satellite. At a pre-determined point, or upon receiving a de-orbit command, the Exo-Brake is deployed, rapidly slowing the vehicle and guiding reentry over a specified location. Once thermal reentry begins, the Exo-Brake stage is completed, and the TDRV is released. The TDRV uses a conical drag device to withstand hypersonic reentry and to slow its descent. Low-altitude testing and design of the TDRV is the focus of the University of Idaho student groups. After reentry is completed, a guided parafoil is deployed which actively guides the payload to a target landing site.

Iridium Modem Testing[edit]

Core 9523 Top

Iridium Communications maintains what is currently the largest consumer satellite communication constellation in a 100-minute orbit around Earth. These satellites communicate with an assortment of consumer devices and modules on the L-band spectrum. The satellites then use a 20-30GHz back-haul to communicate with one of four Iridium ground stations, which relay messages from individual devices to the internet. The end result is global, pre-licensed data coverage. As the ISS deploys research satellites at a lower 90-minute orbit, such satellites can hypothetically use consumer Iridium modules to communicate as they are under the orbit of the Iridium constellation. The TechEdSat group has shown not only is this possible, but they have proven that Short Burst Data (SBD) over the Iridium network can be sent from satellites in LEO to a server on the ground reliably.

Core 9523 Bottom

The next step in their research is to switch from using Iridium's relatively simple 9603 module to the Core 9523. Unlike the 9603, the 9523 can support a full dial-up internet connection, in addition to RUDICS, allowing for a live, streaming internet connection rather than short data bursts. Achieving a live data stream from a satellite would vastly improve data collection and allow for the possibility of active control from a ground computer. However, no orbital tests of the 9523 have been conducted as no platform exists for integrating a Core 9523 into a cube satellite.

Team GPS (Guided Parafoil System) 2014-2015[edit]

Team GPS Wikipage

In 2014, Team Rocket focused on the development of a carrier module for the Iridium 9523 Core to allow for its eventual integration into a cube satellite. Their primary objectives were as follows:

  • Create a carrier PCB for the Iridium 9523 Core
  • Develop and Arduino library for the 9523
  • Using an NAL A3LA-RS Iridium module, test software to establish a dial-up connection
  • Rocket was ultimately only able to accomplish a few of their goals, primarily the creation of a prototype carrier board. Their notes and SCUBEE testing indicate their PCB is not functional and does not properly interface with the 9523. However, team Rocket made significant progress with software development, creating the base for what team ACOM would use the following year.

    Team Rocket 2016-2017[edit]

    Rocket Diagram.png
    Rocket Wikipage

    In 2016, Team Rocket focused on the development of a carrier module for the Iridium 9523 Core to allow for its eventual integration into a cube satellite. Their primary objectives were as follows:

  • Create a carrier PCB for the Iridium 9523 Core
  • Develop and Arduino library for the 9523
  • Using an NAL A3LA-RS Iridium module, test software to establish a dial-up connection
  • Rocket was ultimately only able to accomplish a few of their goals, primarily the creation of a prototype carrier board. Their notes and SCUBEE testing indicate their PCB is not functional and does not properly interface with the 9523. However, team Rocket made significant progress with software development, creating the base for what team ACOM would use the following year.

    Team ACOM (Advanced Communication Device) 2017-2018[edit]

    ACOM Expo Display.jpg
    ACOM Wikipage

    In 2017, Team ACOM was tasked with several goals aimed at advancing several aspects of the SPQR device and associated projects. Their primary objectives were as follows:

  • Develop software for the Raspberry pi to allow use of the Iridium 9523 as a dial-up modem
  • Create a remote server to send data to using the 9523
  • Create and test a mesh network using ZigBee 900MHz radio modules
  • Create and test fly a prototype TDRV device
  • ACOM was ultimately only able to accomplish a few of their goals, primarily the creation of a prototype TDRV and initial testing of basic software for the Iridium 9523. The TDRV prototype was 3-D printed using PLA plastic and drop-tested in the ASUI Kibbie Dome. Reports indicate the Iridium had difficulty sustaining satellite contact was was never able to initiate a dial-up connection. However, it appears short-burst-data (SBD) messages were able to be sent. No electrical hardware was created.

    Project Goals[edit]

    Picking up where teams ACOM and Rocket left off, this project was split into two primary directives: the development of a carrier module for the Core 9523 for use in a cube satellite, and the further testing and development of the TDRV. As per the SCUBEE System Requirements document, the main project objectives were precisely defined as:

  • This project shall develop the hardware and software required to achieve a live network connection from a cube satellite in low earth orbit to a remote ground-based server using the Iridium Core 9523 satellite communication module.
  • This project shall also further develop and optimize the Tube Deployed Re-entry Vehicle, a three-stage re-entry vehicle launched from an orbital payload at the Von Karman altitude.
  • TDRV Development[edit]

    The primary goal of the SCUBEE mechanical design team was to develop a fully functioning tube deployed reentry vehicle (TDRV). The TDRV serves to deliver payloads from space to Earth, surviving the harsh conditions experienced upon reentry. TDRV design, although sparsely investigated, must meet several criteria for optimal performance. The reentry vehicle must be designed to deploy from tube dispensers similar to those found on the International Space Station (ISS), and, once deployed, must fall to Earth and survive reentry conditions up to Mach-5 (hypersonic flow). Once reentry is complete, the TDRV must self-stabilize and fall orthogonal to the Earth’s surface. Successful completion of all criteria illustrates optimal conditions for small payload return to Earth. A finished prototype and production ready design could become instrumental to small satellite research as well as interplanetary exploration. Preliminary drop test data indicates proper construction and stabilization of SCUBEE’s TDRV prototype.

    Existing Design Analysis[edit]

    While team ACOM's work validated the use of descent arrestors for drag force breaking, their design did not provide adequate stabilization during descent, and successful arrestor deployment was highly dependent on the drop orientation of the TDRV. These were the two problems our team set out to solve.

    Based on the test performance of the ACOM TDRV, the following design changes were proposed based on general aerodynamic assumptions:

  • Shorten descent arrestors to reduce drag, thus increasing velocity and stability
  • Increase arrestor angle of attack to further increase velocity and improve stability
  • Improve arrestor material from felt to nylon to reduce back-end mass
  • Place hard-stops on strut ring to keep arrestor from laying against the TDRV body to increase probability of successful deployment
  • Additional changes were proposed to improve ease of construction, usability, and aerodynamics, as detailed in the following diagram: ACOM Improvements.jpg

    Revision and Simulation[edit]

    Re-design of the TDRV began by creating a new CAD model in Solidworks based on the existing ACOM files. However, the new design files use global variables to define critical dimensions. This allows for the TDRV design to be easily scaled so the it can be sized for each return payload or launcher system. This also allows for rapid simulation of design variations using ANSYS to determine the aerodynamic impact of changing key angles and dimensions via CFD.

    2018 SCUBEE tdrv.png

    CFD Modeling[edit]

    Computational Fluid Dynamics modeling (CFD) was used to simulate the TDRV in free fall in atmosphere after thermal reentry at sub-sonic speeds. ANSYS software was used in conjunction with Solidworks models to determine the centers of pressure and mass for each TDRV design, and the drag coefficient of each design. To be stable, the center of mass must be ahead of the center of pressure, with the stability being proportional to the distance between the centers. A low drag coefficient was also desired to reduce heating. Ultimately, ANSYS was used to simulate the effect of different descent arrestor angles on the TDRV terminal velocity and center of pressure. To facilitate timely simulation, the TDRV model and fluid velocity was scaled by 90% to reduce calculated surface area.

    Zero-Degree Arrestor Modeling[edit]

    To test the effect of increasing the arrestor surface area, the arrestor was modeled at a deployment angle of zero-degrees, or perpendicular to the body of the TDRV. The above images show the presence of a high-pressure/low-velocity region on the surface of the arrestor, indicative of a aerodynamic instability and greatly increased drag. Instability can be determined by seeing the lack of a confined, low-pressure zone behind the descent arrestor. This model suggested a less aggressive angle of attack needed to be used.

    Twenty-Degree Arrestor Modeling[edit]

    While team ACOM's design of an approximate thirty-degree angle of attack worked, it was desired to increase the terminal velocity of the TDRV to improve stability. As such, a twenty-degree model was simulated. The above images show the formation of a teardrop shaped low-pressure zone behind the descent arrestor, indicating a stable design. Additionally, the high-pressure region in front of the arrestor was reduced, further increasing stability. Based on this simulation, it was decided to begin testing a twenty degree design alongside thirty and zero degree designs to verify the ANSYS models.

    Control System Development[edit]

    Full TDRV control system block diagram

    The control system designed by team ACOM used a Raspberry Pi single board computer (SBC) to log GPS data and interface with the Iridium 9523 NAL A3LA-RS module to report data. As a backup tracking system a stand alone APRS radio module with an integrated GPS and battery would be attached to the balloon. While this design offered a surplus of computational power, there were several drawbacks to this system:

  • The control system did not fit in the TDRV
  • The primary data reporting system was the experimental payload rather than a proven technology such as a 900MHz radio or APRS link
  • This design does not have the ability to separate the TDRV from a balloon or other platform, preventing accurate fall testing
  • No orientation sensors are included in the design to allow the flight behavior of the TDRV to be studied
  • A conversation with NASA determined that a re-design was needed in order to facilitate better tracking and flight data logging of TDRV test flights and to include the Iridium 9523 at a later date once it was fully functional on the ground. The proposed system had the following requirements:

  • Record real-time flight data including velocity, orientation, acceleration, altitude and air region pressure to enable flight analysis
  • Integrated battery management and power distribution
  • Relay position via APRS radio with the ability to eventually integrate the developed Iridium 9523 module
  • Control release of the TDRV from the carrier vehicle and potentially control the release of additional drag devices such as a parachute or the descent arrestors
  • Based on these criteria, the above block diagram was created outlining the major components and functional blocks of the proposed controller. Rather than being controlled by a Raspberry Pi, the controller is centered around a Teensy 3.5 microcontroller as the TechEdSat group is experienced with its use and it offers the required computational power to process and store live data as it is a ARM Cortex-M4 microcontroller operating at 120MHz. The Teensy 3.5 board also offers 5V and 3.3V I/O signal tolerance and has a built-in micro SD card holder, satisfying the data storage requirement. A 7.4V LiPo battery was selected to resemble the 8V battery system used in the TES satellites. To ease assembly and reduce design complexity, Sparkfun breakout boards were selected to satisfy the sensing requirements of the controller. The following sensors and devices were selected to satisfy the mission requirements:

  • Venus 638 GPS Module: Offers high altitude measurements and high-frequency sampling at lower altitudes. Commonly used by high-altitude balloon teams.
  • MPL3115A2 Altimeter: Barometric altimeter with I2C interface. Capable of centimeter resolution.
  • MPU-6050 Inertial Measurement Unit: Combination 3-axis gyroscope and accelerometer with an integrated Digital Motion Processor Engine (DMP). Allows off-loading of pitch, yaw, roll, acceleration, velocity, and other orientation calculations from CPU to boost sampling rate.
  • HX1 Radiometrix: APRS (Automated Packet Reporting System) 144.39MHz amateur radio band module with 300mW broadcast power. Allows for APRS packets containing GPS and sensor data to be sent every 1-2 minutes. Module requires FCC licence to operate.
  • A system block consisting of motor drivers and feedback mechanisms was also included to allow for the control of servos and linear actuators required to deploy the TDRV and other drag devices. This portion of the design was never fully flushed-out as detailed in the 'Test Variant' section. The key idea behind this design was to allow for the eventual integration of the Iridium 9523 Carrier into the TDRV and to allow for additional sensors and actuators to be connected to the module as needed. As such, mating connectors to the 9523 Carrier board are specified, and all the sensors are able to share a single I2C bus. A serial bus allows data to be sent to the Iridium from the Teensy, emulating the TES satellite infrastructure.

    Test Variant[edit]

    TDRV Construction[edit]


    Future Work[edit]

    Iridium 9523 Development[edit]

    Existing Design Analysis[edit]


    Power System Design[edit]

    Microcontroller Design[edit]

    RF and Layout Considerations[edit]



    Software Development[edit]


    Future Work[edit]

    We made a number of improvements to team ACOM's design, including:

    • Replacing the felt material with ripstop nylon to increase the effectiveness of the descent arrestor;
    • Replacing replacing the rail-mounted endcap and nosecap with a press-fit design;
    • Reconstructing the interior to accept a configurable electronics tray;
    • Mounting the GPS and Iridum antennas on the endcap, in addition to the drop mechanism;
    • Introducing descent arrestor hard-stop stabs for deployment testing; and
    • Replacing the 3D printed body with a machined tube to improve the strength-weight ratio.

    This design was tested to have a maximum velocity of 17.5 meters per second.

    The board contains an SAMD21 ARM Cortex-M0+ microcontroller.

    The board provides two serial connections: one is connected to the microcontroller for normal use, and the other connected directly to the modem for testing.

    The modem requires a 30W power supply to send data, so LR3959 boost converter was used to provide the necessary power from an 8V input.

    The library was designed to use a simple command/response packet system.

    The library was designed to provide four modes of operation:

    • OFF, where the modem is disabled;
    • RAW, where all data packets are sent directly to the modem;
    • SBD, where all data packets are converted into Short-Burst Data packets, which is the format currently used; and
    • TCP, where all data packets are streamed over a TCP/IP connection, which is the primary goal of this project.

    Two versions of the library were created. The first version is designed for use on a microcontroller and is optimized to use as little memory as possible. The second version is designed to run on a computer and provides debugging information to assist future software development.

    GitHub Repo

    Team Members[edit]

    Team Photo

    Left to Right:
    Hunter Barnett
    Major: Computer Science
    Biography: Hunter Barnett is a computer science student from southern California. His interests include writing software for embedded devices and retro consoles.

    Avery Brock
    Major: Electrical Engineering
    Biography: Avery Brock is an electrical engineering student from the Seattle area. When not busy with classes he enjoys developing his own projects ranging from Jacob's ladders to IoT devices. His primary interests are aerospace and robotics and hopes to pursue those topics for his master's degree.

    Yi Yang
    Major: Electrical Engineering
    Biography: Yi Yang is an electrical engineering student. She is from China.

    Hunter Kanniainen
    Major: Mechanical Engineering
    Biography: Coming from Vancouver, Washington, Hunter Kanniainen is a mechanical engineering student with a strong focus on design and analysis. Hunter has designed robotic components for Dr. Joel Perry’s BLUE SABINO project as well as completing an internship at NASA’s Ames Research Center. At NASA, Hunter designed test components for small satellites and used FEA analysis to determine their effectiveness in application. Hunter is returning to NASA to work full time after graduation in 2019.

    Tim White
    Major: Mechanical Engineering
    Biography: Tim is a mechanical engineering student at the University of Idaho and has a passion for prototyping, problem solving and intersecting business and engineering products. He plans on getting his MBA after his undergraduate program.

    Additional Documentation[edit]

    Presentations: PDR DDR EXPO

    Minutes ! scope="col" width="width:20em;" |Result ! scope="col" width="width:20em;" |Notes |- |1999 |Deep Space 2 |Test martian soil samples, and communicate results back to earth. |Failure |— |- |2014-15 |Unknown |Unknown |Ongoing |Documentation lost; taken over by Team inSPACE. |- |2015-16 |Near Space Engineering |Design a test board for suborbital satellites. |Ongoing |Taken over by Team ROCKET. |- |2016-17 |Satellite Development |Improve communications between flight experiments and ground stations. |Ongoing |Taken over by Team ACOM. |- |2017-18 |ACOM |Improve communications between flight experiments and ground stations. |Ongoing |Taken over by this project. |}