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SpaceX rocket launch puts Sonoma State University’s small satellite in orbit

Sonoma State University student Jesus Gonzalez watched Thursday morning as a powerful rocket took 10 minutes to lift his summer project off the ground in Cape Canaveral, Florida and into orbit about 250 miles above the Earth.

Gonzalez, 21, a fourth-year student at SSU majoring in electrical engineering, was in charge of assembling a 3-pound satellite, about twice the size of a Rubik’s cube, that was packed into the cargo carrier atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that launched from the Kennedy Space Center.

Wearing a camouflage hoodie, jeans and a black baseball cap, Gonzalez quietly watched the flawless launch live on NASA TV from a small conference room in Rohnert Park on the third floor of the university’s library.

“Something I put my hands on is now in space,” he said. “It’s incredible. Something I never thought of doing in my life is happening now.”

About 2,500 miles away, Lynn Cominsky, a professor Program Director for SSU’s Education and Public Outreach Group, had a VIP seat in the space center bleachers?6 miles from the launch pad but as close as the public can get.

It took 30 seconds for the rumble of the nine-engine rocket to reach her.

“You can feel the air moving,” she said in a telephone interview. “It sort of washes over you.”

“Everyone was screaming and yelling. It was very exciting,” said Cominsky, a 33-year SSU faculty member who has an even longer relationship with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

As the sleek, 230-foot-long rocket rose through a bright blue Florida sky, trailing a long flaming yellow tail, Cominsky sent a one-word text to her colleagues in the conference room: “Yippee.”

“Everything is going according to plan,” the NASA announcer intoned.

Tucked into the Dragon capsule atop one of Elon Musk’s rockets was about 5,700 pounds of cargo, more than a ton of it science gear, including SSU’s diminutive product, a cube satellite - cubesat for short - named EdgeCube.

The product of a three-year, $200,000 NASA-funded project, EdgeCube was built by about 30 SSU students and 10 more from Santa Clara University and Morehead State University in Kentucky, with volunteer technical guidance from Garrett Jernigan, a retired UC Berkeley physicist who is also Cominsky’s husband.

Gonzalez, a Geyserville resident, came late to the EdgeCube project this summer, spending nine hours a day, six days a week figuring out how to fit all the electrical components into a 64-cubic-inch 3D printed aluminum frame with solar panels on three sides and an antenna on top.

There are six green circuit boards inside the cube, and a spectrometer that will conduct EdgeCube’s scientific mission of measuring the “red edge” - the chemical fingerprint of chlorophyll - in vegetation around the globe.

“The technology is not new, but it’s the first time it’s been packaged in something so small,” said Doug Clarke, a retired Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory physicist who helped design the spectrometer.

EdgeCube is intended to measure stresses on fields and forests as the seasons change, and assess the impact of climate change - if it lasts for two years, but its orbital life may not be that long.

Outer space is teeming with cubesats, with about 400 commercial units aloft plus about 300 sent up by schools, researchers and hobbyists, most of the latter inoperative, according to Jernigan and Cominsky.

“Half of them are never heard from,” Cominsky said, acknowledging that could be EdgeCube’s fate.

“We tested the heck out of this thing, but there are no guarantees in the space business,” she said.

At best, the life expectancy of a cubesat orbiting more than 300 ?miles above the Earth is two to three years, as the thin atmosphere at that level causes some drag on the device, which has no propulsion, and eventually slips closer to Earth, burning up long before it reaches the planet’s surface.

None of that mattered to Gonzalez, a 2016 graduate from Healdsburg High School, enjoying the fact his handiwork, along with his name, is now in a place humans first reached in 1961.

EdgeCube carries an origami paper crane bearing the names of the students, advisors and companies that participated in the project, planted there by David House, a former student leader of the SSU team who is now a graduate student in engineering.

In an email, House described watching the launch in person at Cape Canaveral as “an overwhelming experience” that kindled pride, joy and “gratitude to all who have helped us” develop EdgeCube.

House was at the launch with David Story, a senior engineering student and current team leader, who said space flight projects have been a nearly lifelong passion.

The launch “was definitely a watershed moment both in my life and in the progress of the scientific research” at Sonoma State, he said.

Thursday marked the start of a long journey for EdgeCube, which will be transferred from the Dragon capsule after it docks in orbit with the International Space Station, scheduled to happen Sunday.

In mid-January, the cubesat will be placed aboard a Cygnus freight rocket that will ferry it up to 310 miles above Earth and ?release it into its intended orbit. At that point, the small space traveler is supposed to “wake up and talk to us,” Cominsky said.

“We’re not 100% sure we’re going to actually be able to get the data from outer space,” said Gonzalez, whose family home was destroyed weeks ago by the Kincade fire. He now faces three final exams followed by three more semesters before graduation.

His future sights are set at ground level, as the car-loving mechanic contemplates a career designing electrical components for automobiles.

For Cominsky, EdgeCube was her second satellite, following T-LogoQube, a device about the size of a television remote control launched in 2013 to measure the Earth’s magnetic field.

She’s planning a third one and has some “interesting possibilities” in mind, she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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