Next Research Launch: Carolina’s Own Satellite

UNC senior Patrick Gorman and assistant professor Andrew Mann use 3D printers in the Murray Hall Makerspace to create models of components for small satellites. (Jon Gardiner ’98/UNC)

Spring break 2021 could be out of this world for a handful of Tar Heels.

That’s when Assistant Professor Andrew Mann hopes to launch his own satellite, called a CubeSat, into low-Earth orbit. Small enough to fit in your hand, the CubeSat will support Mann’s research into young planets beyond our solar system, and he’d like his students to be at the launch site — wherever it is.

After all, they will have helped Mann design and build the satellite using BeAM, UNC’s network of campus makerspaces.

“That’s the vision,” said Mann, who is setting aside funds to pay for the students’ trip. “They help build it, they get to watch it launch, then they get to come back to UNC and we get to use it.”

Mann came to the Carolina physics and astronomy department in 2018 as a bit of a maverick.

While completing postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Texas and Columbia, he’d made a left turn toward a sparsely populated area of space research that was still regarded with skepticism among most astronomers: the study of young planets that resemble Earth in size.

“I jumped because I thought it was going to be the next big thing.”

Andrew Mann told all the universities who interviewed him for faculty positions that he planned to buy his own CubeSat, but Carolina’s response intrigued him: “They said, ‘Don’t buy it. Build it.’ ”

He was right. Now, he says, the field is crowded, and the race is on to find more young planets like the three that scientists already have identified. Comparisons of these space toddlers with other Earth-like planets along a timeline can yield valuable information about the conditions that lead to habitable planets — and Earth’s evolution.

Mann needs three years just to confirm the existence of a single, Earth-sized young planet. “Patience,” he said, “is the problem.”

Patience, and control over the data. That challenge led Mann to another unusual move: the decision to acquire his own satellite. Mann told all the universities who interviewed him for faculty positions that he planned to buy his own CubeSat, but Carolina’s response intrigued him.

“They said, ‘Don’t buy it. Build it,’ ” said Mann, a big-data and theory-driven academic who’d never built anything in his life. “Truth be told, that’s one of the main reasons why I’m here.

“Doing something I’ve never done before is a new, difficult thing — and I like that. I have students who are undergrads and graduate students. I want them to get something out of this research also.”

Senior biomedical engineering major Patrick Gorman started work this summer on the satellite’s prototype. That includes the computer and communications systems that will enable Mann and his students to talk to it from Earth, the chassis that will house those components and the solar panels and power system that will keep it running independently for about five years. The less-than-3-pound cube also will house the camera that will take images for research.

“The appeal to me was getting a lot of different experience from all the different aspects of building a satellite,” said Gorman, an astronomy minor. “Being able to say that I can design my own computer board and program it, the specific technical skills I’ve gotten from working on this complicated thing, will open a lot of doors that I wouldn’t be able to otherwise.”

Making the prototype and building most of the components for the real thing in-house will cut the total construction and launch cost in half, to about $50,000.

“To build a prototype ourselves also lets us know exactly how much space we have to work with to add components or remove them,” Mann said. “And that’s where the makerspace is really powerful.”

Makerspace is a worldwide movement — in which Carolina is a leader in training and facilities — that introduces students to the collaborative culture of making physical objects using digital and traditional tools.

The CubeSat could be launched by a private company friendly to nonprofits or could hitch a ride with NASA, depending on timing and availability. If chosen by the latter, however, the satellite would make a priceless pit stop: the International Space Station. There, ISS astronauts would talk with Tar Heel creators and test the CubeSat, repairing any problems before sending the satellite on its mission.

“That way, not only does your CubeSat not end up toast because of a malfunction in space,” Mann said, “but students would also get to talk to the astronauts on the ISS. That would be a cool experience.”

— Beth McNichol ’95


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