The two-tone antenna that lends credence to the communication device’s beach ball comparison will be launched in a stowed and folded configuration. Once in the earth circuit, the antenna will be inflated using a combination of helium and argon, increasing its original surface area to provide increased downlink speeds.
That cubesat — “CatSat,” as the students have dubbed it — will serve a dual purpose alongside its new antenna tests. Instruments opposite the beach ball antenna will probe Earth’s ionosphere to study the propagation and changes of high-frequency radio signals across the atmosphere. Together with other onboard components, CatSat’s instruments will transmit high-resolution images of our planet at speeds previously impossible to achieve with cubesats of comparable size.
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Hilliard Paige, University of Arizona systems engineering student and CatSat’s lead systems engineer, sees the antenna concept as a pathfinder for future missions. “After a successful launch, this inflatable antenna will be the first of its kind in space,” she said in a online posts (opens in new tab) from the university.
“The technology demonstrated by CatSat opens the door to the possibility of future lunar, planetary and deep space missions using cubesats,” reiterated University of Arizona astronomy professor Chris Walker.
Through the University of Arizona’s commercialization efforts through Tech Launch Arizona, Walker co-founded a company called Freefall Aerospace, which developed the beach ball antenna. Walker was also one of the University of Arizona faculty who submitted the original CatSat proposal to NASA under the agency’s Cubesat Launch Initiative in 2019.
That proposal won NASA’s approval, and CatSat was assigned a launch vehicle—a Firefly Aerospace Alpha rocket, which will lift off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California and deliver the small satellite into a 340-mile-high (547-kilometer), sun-synchronous orbit. If successful, CatSat’s beach ball antenna will then beam down near real-time images of Earth.
CatSat does not yet have a target launch date, although it is expected to get one later this year, University of Arizona officials said.
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