LOGAN -- The secret to making tiny cube satellites perform better in space may be something that looks a little like a blow-out party favor.
Utah State University is conducting research on an inflatable plastic boom that can unfurl once the satellite, about 4 inches square, is deployed. The boom is impregnated with an epoxy that becomes rigid only after being exposed to ultraviolet rays, like those in sunlight.
The rigid boom hangs downward, because of gravity, which creates torque. USU student researchers believe it will stabilize a cube satellite, so it can take clear pictures and host certain types of experiments that can't be conducted on a spinning satellite.
"Most satellites require some kind of active control to keep them from straying from orbit and spinning out of control," said James Gardiner, 23, the physics junior and cubesat project manager. "Active control requires some kind of power source, such as batteries or magnets."
All of which add weight and cost, he said.
"It comes down to trying to make space cheaper and more accessible to universities and other research groups," Gardiner said. "By adding torque into the cubesat system, it reduces the up-and-down movement.
"That's important, because most satellites spin, so they can't take pictures or run certain experiments. We would be able to take pictures and run different experiments that measure different things, because of the up-and-down stabilization."
Cubesat radio boards and other parts can be purchased from suppliers or built, Gardiner said. USU's boom is the innovation. The balloon is about a half-inch in diameter and inflates to a length of about 36 inches.
"To our knowledge, this has never been attempted before with a cubesat," he said.
From 1982 to 2001, USU's Get Away Special Team flew 11 GAS payloads on 10 shuttle flights containing more than 30 student-built experiments -- the most from any university. But with the close of NASA's shuttle program in 2011, Utah State University students, along with astronauts, have been looking at varied alternatives to get themselves and their experiments into microgravity.
In 2010, 2011 and 2012, members of the USU student team boarded a NASA-contracted microgravity jet -- nicknamed the "Vomit Comet" -- and flew experiments of their own design. The team's interest in an alternative project grew from its desire to promote continued research.
Most satellites are now deployed as secondary payload on missions to the International Space Station.
"Without access to a space vehicle, we have to access space in different ways," said USU GAS Team member Jorden Luke. "Building a cube satellite gives us another way to get into space."
Gardiner said the boom could increase the control level in affordable cubesats.
"It's a less expensive and simpler way to control small satellites in low earth orbit," he said.
Interest is high in the use of light-weight materials impregnated with UV-rigidizing epoxy, Gardiner said. Astronauts traveling to the moon or Mars might need a structure upon arrival.
"It costs too much to ship large objects, but if you could get there and inflate a balloon that would harden on the surface, you could get a rigid structure," he said.
The cubesat, with boom, is currently in the design stage, Gardiner said. A design review will begin in October, and the group hopes to build the actual device and start testing by about May. Assuming NASA approves, the flight to release USU's cubesat could take place about a year from now. Gardiner said the device would be released into orbit about halfway between Earth and the moon.
Contact reporter Nancy Van Valkenburg at 801-625-4275 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @S_ENancyVanV.