Stanford, We Have Liftoff'

September/October 1999

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Stanford, We Have Liftoff'

Greg Hutchins/Space Systems Development Laboratory (SSDL)

For a student project, it had lofty ambitions. Back in 1995, a group of science and engineering students set out to design and build a satellite that could be carried into space. It took four years and a series of redesigns, but the Orbiting Picosatellite Automatic Launcher (OPAL) is set to blast off aboard an Air Force rocket September 25. Weighing just 30 pounds, OPAL will piggyback on a satellite built by students at the U.S. Air Force Academy. "It's the culmination, like raising a child and watching it walk on its own," says Stanford aerophysics professor Bob Twiggs, who served as adviser and used his contacts in the aerospace industry to arrange a berth on the rocket.

The students -- drawn mostly from master's programs in computer science and engineering -- had to overcome budget flip-flops and planning snafus. They started out designing a "mothership" satellite that would carry a payload of smaller satellites. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., signed on to provide the small satellites -- and much of the funding.

But when JPL backed out 18 months into the project, the students revamped their plans, signed up new partners who could supply minisatellites, and arranged other funding from government sources. The new minisatellite providers include a group of women engineers from Santa Clara University, ham radio operators from Washington, D.C., and a team from Aerospace Corp. Once aloft, OPAL will launch the Coke-can-size minisatellites, which will send back observations on everything from thunderstorm broadcast interference to satellite communication limits.

The Stanford students who worked on the project -- 120 over the four years -- did it all on a shoestring budget. Laboring for free, they built OPAL from aluminum and installed electronics from local stores like Radio Shack and Fry's. The tight money management paid off: designing and building the ship cost less than $50,000. A comparable commercial project would run about $2.5 million, Twiggs estimates.

About 50 Stanford students and alumni expect to attend the launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base, about 300 miles south of campus. Clem Tillier, MS '98, wouldn't miss it: "It's going to be spectacular to see something you spent long hours on launch into space."

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