NASA Funds Shoebox-Size Space Satellite From Berkeley Students

This intrepid team at UC Berkeley hopes to launch a quantum CubeSat into space, and they already have NASA's funding.
Brad Bergan

When a college senior approaches graduation, they traditionally write a final thesis, co-author a paper, or even give a talk at an academic conference, but when Paul Köttering graduates from the University of California, Berkeley, he hopes to launch a satellite, in 2021, according to UC Berkeley's blog.


Berkeley students' final test is satellite launch, courtesy of NASA

While shelter-in-place requires many throughout the world to stay home throughout the coronavirus epidemic — Köttering is riding out the rest of the semester from the comfort of his parents' home in London — he and his team of UC Berkeley undergraduates are holding Zoom video conferences every week, to prepare for the forthcoming launch of a shoebox-sized experiment: to test novel navigation technology for satellites, based on research conducted on campus.

In February of this year, NASA declared it'd cover the launch costs — upwards of $300,000 — via the CubeSat Launch Initiative, which was developed to fly small experiments as auxiliary payloads on nominal rocket launches.

Paul Köttering Berkeley
UC Berkeley junior Paul Köttering, sheltering-in-place within his London home. Source: Paul Köttering / UC Berkeley

Building the shoe-sized CubeSat satellite

However, to build the satellite itself, the UC Berkeley team is trying to raise $15,000 via crowdfunding, and also campus' Big Give campaign, and is looking for donated equipment from several manufacturers. The team has already received a $4,950 grant from the UC Berkeley Student Technology Fund.

"The NASA grant is just for the launch, so we have still got to supply and manufacture the satellite ourselves," said Köttering, now a junior and majoring in applied mathematics and physics. "Luckily, the cost of CubeSats has dropped significantly over the past three to four years. The communications systems, power systems, control systems — a lot of those are just off-the-shelf, commercial parts, so they are quite cheap. The payload itself is the more expensive item, but again, a lot of that comes from in-kind donations from companies."

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Quantum Gyroscope STAC Berkeley
Called the NV-diamond (or quantum gyroscope), the device will sit in between magnetic coils, themselves encased in a box that blocks external magnetic fields. Source: STAC / Berkeley

Known as QubeSat (short for quantum CubeSat), the Berkeley team's satellite will test a new kind of gyroscope based on the quantum mechanical interactions that happen in imperfect diamonds. The diamond gyroscope was first invented at Berkeley, in the laboratory of physicist Dmitry Budker, professor of the graduate school.

The undergraduate team behind the QubeSat is also part of an undergraduate aerospace club called Space Technologies at Cal (STAC), which has already flown experiments with help from balloons and the International Space Station — magnificent for a group that's only four years old. Some of the intrepid team's graduates have moved on to work at world-historical aerospace companies, like Boeing, SpaceX, and several others.