Illinois Tiny Satellite Initiative

University of Illinois @ Urbana-Champaign
 Pre-Launch Announcement
PRE-LAUNCH ANNOUNCEMENT for the Illinois Observing Nanosatellite (ION) on July 26, 2006

* Subscribe to ION email list (few emails/year):

* Send beacon reports to:
cubesat AT

* Public Relations / Program Manager:
Purvesh Thakker (pthakker AT

* ION Web Site / News:

* TLEs (ION is in PPOD A):

Almost exactly five years after setting its sights on space, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will launch its first student-developed satellite on July 26, 2006. Over these past years, over 125 students across seven engineering disciplines have contributed to the project. In addition to the primary educational mission that CubeSat programs perform, the University of Illinois has strived to also demonstrate the utility of these tiny satellites by following through on real missions including a science mission. The ION team hopes that the resulting product will help expand the perceptions of what these tiny satellites can do someday leading to future space sensor webs. As discussed below, the team is fully prepared for launch and looking forward to hearing the little guy phone home. See below for additional information about the satellite.

We are looking for ham radio operators who can listen for our satellite's beacon, which will be broadcast at 437.505 MHz immediately after launch. The beacon is sent in plain text over AX.25 every 5 minutes, and anyone listening with a TNC in connectionless mode should be able to pick it up. Please e-mail to subscribe to our mailing list and receive announcements including launch information. Send beacon reports to "cubesat AT" with your name/location, any data that you receive, time of contact, and signal strength.

* Frequency: 437.505 Mhz, AFSK
* Speed: 1200bps
* Format: Plain text over AX.25
* When: Every 5 minutes
* Include: name, location, data, date/time, signal strength, address for QSL (if desired)

Here is a "lessons learned" story that is sure to be passed from CubeSat generation to CubeSat generation. Mike, Leon, and I recently visited ION in California for some final preparations including adjusting schedules and recharging the main batteries. When we arrived, the satellite was completely silent. To make a very long story short, we held a midnight meeting at Denny's with a few snippets of external information and somehow diagnosed the most likely cause as a dead clock battery. In order to replace the clock battery without disassembling the satellite, we operated on it using surgical tools and a borrowed dentist's mirror. The dentist's office we visited graciously agreed to loan us a mirror, but they said that we could have come up with a better story. When the dentist finally came out, he quizzically opened with, "You guys are doing what?" For some reason, they didn't believe us when we told them that we were students launching a satellite out of Russia using a converted nuclear missile... as if we could make up a tale that tall!! We are happy to report that after an intense three days in the emergency room, ION made a full recovery and is now on its way to Russia with plans to circle the globe... every 95 minutes.

Although difficult, the launch delays this past year have had some nice side benefits. We were able to review ION's design while designing ION's successor (temporarily named ION-2). More importantly, the delays have given us time to upgrade our ground station including the installation of a new antenna tower. We are currently practicing communications with existing satellites using this tower and plan to maintain the old antenna tower as a backup until the new setup has proven reliable. Finally, the delays have given us a chance to take a breather after an intense couple of years of development. We are now recharged and preparing for launch much more thoroughly than we might have a year ago. In addition to ground station upgrades, we are in the process of developing tools for managing/graphing/analyzing/processing satellite data and posting it to the Web. We are also carefully defining a number of experiments and would welcome any input that you may have. A list of these can be found below. As a whole, we plan to be very well organized with our information and procedures.

Our organization will consist of two teams this summer. The Ground Team handles day-to-day file exchanges, organization of information, preliminary data analysis, and command recommendations. The information is then distributed over the Web to the Command Team, which consists of ION veterans now scattered across the nation. The Command Team performs a detailed data analysis, makes the final command decisions in a conference call, and prepares/double checks config files for upload to the satellite. All-in-all launch preparations have been progressing very nicely, and we should be fully prepared for the launch on July 26.

Also, visit

ION is the first project of the Illinois Tiny Satellite Initiative (ITSI), which is organized through an interdisciplinary senior design course. The course objectives include training students to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems as part of a large multi-team project. Over the past five years, over 125 students across seven engineering disciplines have contributed to the project. Most students participate in their senior year with some starting earlier or participating as graduate students. One to two graduate Teaching Assistants provide day-to-day program management and continuity across semesters as the students in the course continually change. In addition, three faculty advisors provide mentorship and numerous other faculty provide technical support as required. Typically, five to six teams of three to five people each participate in the project. Other ITSI projects include the primary payload for the Thunderstorm Effects in Space Technology Nanosatellite (TEST) and a successor to ION (temporarily named ION-2) that began one year ago.

In addition to the primary educational mission that CubeSat programs perform, the University of Illinois has strived to also demonstrate the utility of these tiny satellites by following through on real missions including a science mission. The ION team hopes that the resulting product will help expand the perceptions of what these tiny satellites can do, possibly even extending to future space sensor webs.

The first of ION's five science and technology missions involves measuring Oxygen airglow emissions from the Earthís Mesosphere. This helps scientists understand how energy transfers across large regions contributing to our knowledge of atmospheric dynamics. Second, ION tests a new MicroVacuum Arc Thruster (ĶVAT) with high dynamic range advancing a key enabling technology for small satellites. This serves as a stepping-stone towards a versatile low mass satellite propulsion system capable of lateral movement and finely controlling attitude. Such a capability might someday allow greater interaction with other spacecraft. Third, ION tests a new SID processor board designed specifically for small satellites in Low Earth Orbits (LEO). By utilizing a Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) processor that is radiation hardened through system design techniques, it allows small satellites to take advantage of the latest in small, low power, high performance processor technology with increased reliability. Fourth, ION tests a small CMOS camera for Earth imaging on this and future spacecraft. Finally, ION performs ground based attitude stabilization demonstrating an important capability for the future growth of CubeSats. IONís design also includes solar cell power point tracking, dual redundant batteries, a custom communications protocol, a custom file system, automatic telemetry publication to the Web, and future support for distributed ground stations.

IONís primary mission consists of measuring molecular Oxygen airglow emissions from the Earthís mesosphere using a 760nm photometer. Oxygen chemistry at this 90km altitude emits a dim glow of light, and IONís photometer should show perturbations in this airglow caused by various effects such as the presence of mountains. These perturbations ripple through the atmosphere in 15km to >2500km waves carried by wind. By studying these waves, scientists learn how energy transfers across large spatial regions contributing to knowledge of upper atmospheric dynamics. This airglow emission is absorbed by the Earthís lower atmosphere preventing study with Earth-based sensors, and satellite detection has the added benefit of global coverage. In addition, IONís orbit gives it a unique opportunity to gather this data around the Polar Regions and at higher latitudes.

* Establish Contact with UI's First Student Satellite
* Survive the First Two Weeks
* Test / Characterize All Systems
* Determine Satellite Attitude
* Stabilize Satellite
* Measure Oxygen Airglow
* Photograph Earth
* Test SID Processor
* Test Thrusters
* Test Polyethylene Shielding
* Connect with Distributed Ground Station Network

So far, some 100 organizations have registered intentions to develop CubeSats, and about a dozen have launched. Success rates have been surprisingly high considering that these satellites are developed by inexperienced students often as the first spacecraft from their institutions. The CubeSat Spec, developed by Stanford and Cal-Poly Universities, standardizes the mechanical interface between CubeSats and their PPOD deployers. This allows developers to efficiently combine multiple CubeSats and include them as secondary payloads with ongoing launches. CubeSats typically have a mass of one kilogram with dimensions of 10x10x10cm, and they can be combined into double or triple CubeSats to create a larger satellite. Three CubeSats fit into deployers called PPODs developed by Cal-Poly University. They then mount multiple PPODs onto a launch vehicle as secondary payloads. The CubeSat spec specifically minimizes risk to the rest of the launch vehicle and payloads. For example, switches at the bottom of each satelliteís feet turn off all electronics while the satellite waits for deployment in the PPOD, and the PPOD completely encloses the CubeSats. The satellites also go through vibration, thermal-vacuum, and bake out procedures prior to launch.


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