Press Release

Blast Off! Michigan Tech Students’ Nanosat Wins Launch into Orbit

By SpaceRef Editor
January 21, 2011
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A team of Michigan Technological University students has taken first place in the prestigious University Nanosat 6 competition, earning the rare privilege of having the Department of Defense launch their custom-made satellite into orbit.

The University Nanosat Program is sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory, which handpicked 11 university teams from dozens of applicants across the nation. Each of those 11 teams was then awarded a two-year contract to design and build a small satellite (“nanosat”) to perform a mission of its choosing. The program culminated with a flight competition review, held Jan. 16-17 in Albuquerque, N.M., adjacent to Kirtland Air Force Base. By winning the competition, Michigan Tech received a contract to further develop its satellite and launch it into orbit aboard a DOD rocket.

Built by students in the Aerospace Enterprise, Michigan Tech’s entry is called Oculus-ASR, for its role as an orbiting eye and for its ability to assist scientists on the ground with satellite attitude and shape recognition. The 154-pound satellite was engineered to help in a Department of Defense effort.

“The DOD wants to know what’s orbiting the Earth, who owns it, what it’s doing, and what it might do in the future,” said team advisor L. Brad King, an associate professor of mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics.

Unfortunately, unless you use an extremely powerful telescope, it’s hard to tell much about satellites from the surface of the Earth. For the most part, they look like nondescript dots of white light drifting overhead. Yet, those dots actually provide lots of information that scientists can use to recognize a satellite’s attitude–its orientation in space–and its shape. The trick lies in analyzing that information, and Oculus was designed to help the Air Force do just that.

“In general, our role will be to calibrate their telescopes,” said King, by providing different views of the satellite for the air force to look at and by releasing targets, which both Oculus and air force scientists on the ground can photograph. “It’s a very capable little vehicle. There’s a lot packed into it.”

That functionality is a big reason Oculus won Nanosat 6. “Nobody wants to spend a million dollars to put a beeping university mascot into orbit,” King observed. “One of our strengths was our vehicle’s relevance to the DOD, the fact that it was doing meaningful science.”

For the full story, see

For more information, contact Marcia Goodrich,, 906-487-2343.

Thank you.
Jennifer Donovan

Jennifer B. Donovan, Director of Public Relations
University Marketing & Communications
Michigan Technological University
906-487-4521; cell 906-281-7530;

SpaceRef staff editor.