North Dakota's 1st spacecraft gears up for December launch

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FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A low-cost miniature satellite that University of North Dakota students have been working on for five years is ready for testing ahead of its scheduled December launch.

The so-called CubeSat is a 2-pound device with 4-inch sides that can be held in the palm of a person's hand. It is scheduled to catch a ride on a supply ship heading to the International Space Station, where it would begin its journey as North Dakota's first spacecraft to orbit Earth.

The project is meant to demonstrate the ability to make a functional spacecraft for a few thousand dollars. The CubeSat research team consisting of students and others is hoping that other space buffs can use the template to build a satellite.

"We wanted to keep it affordable so the next school can come and do this," UND CubeSat program director Jeremy Straub said. "Whether the launch is tremendously successful or a complete failure, it's really just a start to the next phase."

About 100 students, faculty and staff have chipped in on the project since it began in 2011. The team has now moved from the design phase to "fixing the things that don't work," Straub said. Most of the testing is being done through NASA, which last year ranked the project as the best of its kind in the nation.

CubeSats are designed to take narrow, targeted scientific observations with instruments often built from basic components.

"The CubeSat industry has changed dramatically from when we started five years ago," Straub said. "There's a lot more commercial development going on right now. We got in right before the wave, so to speak."

The group's electrical design leader, Michael Wegerson, landed two internships while working on the project and recently founded a company that will sell the low-cost satellites to other institutions. Wegerson, who earned a degree in electrical engineering, said he has spent about 20 hours a week on the project since his freshman year.

"I had always been a huge space fan, but it seemed out of reach," Wegerson said. "This program turned a dream into reality."

Skye Leake, a junior in mechanical engineering who recently took over payload design for the project, said he has been working on fitting a 3-D printer for the CubeSat, shrinking the scale from feet to millimeters.

"Honestly I'm a little bit nervous because there are still some bugs to be ironed out," he said. "There is a hard deadline out there that you can't avoid."

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