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.