SLU’s Space Lab is Building Spacecraft for Low Earth Orbit Mission-Testing AI for Space Exploration

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Produce for Science and Technology

    A satellite built at Saint Louis University successfully launched into orbit from the International Space Station (ISS) on February 19, 2020. The Argus-2 satellite was built by a team of faculty and students at SLU’s Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology. It’s one satellite in a series of spacecraft leading to a bigger mission.

    Argus-2 may not be a large spacecraft, but it has a large-scale objective. It’s a 4-by-8-inch, 6-pound CubeSat, which is a type of miniaturized satellite for space research

    Saint Louis University undergraduate students built the spacecraft in the Space Systems Research Laboratory (SSRL), an undergraduate research organization whose mission is to perform world-class research in the design, fabrication and operation of space systems. Michael Swartwout, Ph.D., associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering, is leading the effort. Swartwout’s interest is to improve the professional space industry.

    “Argus-2 is part of the second activity where we got sponsored by NASA,” explained Swartwout. “If we build the satellite and it works, and it does what it says it’s going to do, they will fly it.”

    Argus-2 carried a commercial SD memory card to test the effects of space radiation on data storage. The importance of the SD card research is for a greater mission, which is SLU’s next space project called DORRE, Distributed Observation Reaction and Response Experiment. The DORRE mission aims to create CubeSat and ground-based hardware that will facilitate a network to test machine learning for future space missions and exploration.

    “It’s all going to be about four years of our lives,” Swartwout said. “And probably when it’s all done, we’re probably going to end up having spent $600,000 on this mission.”

    The focus of the DORRE mission is to create a network of distributed sensor platforms that detect and react to events in their surrounding environments. DORRE will be a constellation of spacecraft and ground systems autonomously working together. It’s about the creation of artificial intelligence for space exploration. Each entity within the network will autonomously run ARES, machine learning software that can detect, learn from, and react to events and abnormalities in its environment developed by Bennett Research Technologies in St. Louis. The CubeSats are each 3U, measuring approximately 10x10x30 cm, and are designed to operate in Low Earth orbit.

    “Autonomous software has to discover something that it was not expecting. Then when something new happens, they will be able to recognize that it’s interesting, stop what they are doing and go do that.”

    The launch of Argus-2, the step leading to DORRE, produced excitement at SLU. But in the weeks that followed, excitement turned into disappointment. The SLU lab lost contact.

    “We check in about once a month to see if maybe something turned on or the antennas deployed, but so far we’ve had radio silence,” said Swartwout.

    It’s another setback after Argus -1, which went into the ocean because of a rocket failure. SLU students are learning from possible complication of ARGUS -2 as they moving forward with DORRE. DORRE satellites will be larger with a new configuration of parts.

    “It’s very possible something got bent or broken or loosened,“ said Swartwout. “So one of the things that the DORRE team said is we are not going to squoosh this into a (smaller) 1U, we are going to fill the entire tube (3U CubeSat).”

    Partnering with Bennett Research Technologies, DORRE will have sensing capabilities for autonomous exploration.

    “What we are trying to show is that with very cheap, very simple spacecraft, we can do an interesting mission.”

    Identifying natural events, such as lightening and storms, from space is an example. DORRE would be designed to detect anything at all that may be out of the ordinary.

    “The actual success of DORRE is it will be listening for radio signals. We will be building a radio map of the world,” explained Swartwout. “One day it’s going to fly over St. Louis and we’re going to blast it with our own radio signal that it’s never seen before.”

    The idea is that DORRE will react and explore. That’s the appeal of DORRE moving forward in a competition funded by the Department of the Air Force. The U.S. Air Force will award winners the full $600,000 in August 2021. Meanwhile, the SLU team is still trying to solve the lost in space SD card problem.

    “If this SD card solution doesn’t work, then our $600,000 mission is probably more like a $2 million mission because of how expensive it will be to fly more space-rated, space-ready electronics.”

    No matter what happens, Swartwout is sure the one DORRE spacecraft being built now would fly, even if the full project lacks funding. But he has no plans of giving up.

    “Either the Air Force is going to fund us to build ideally four more or we will figure out a different way to get funding and projects for students to work on.”