Georgia Institute of Technology

Prox-1 Takes Tech Students to New Heights

Feb 04, 2013

Jason Frieman has always had big goals.

When he was growing up, he wanted to become an engineer.  (He's now working toward a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering.)  And, of course, he wanted to send something into space.

"It kind of has been something I've always dreamed about since I was a kid," he says.

Now he's making that dream come true, too.

As part of the Prox-1 team, Frieman is among the students working on what is said to be GT's first-ever spaceflight mission.  Prox-1, a satellite mission, recently won the University Nanosat Program (UNP) competition, which means it will receive an Air Force launch slot as a secondary payload.

Prox-1 is historic in more ways than one.  The mission is designed to demonstrate automated trajectory control in low-Earth orbit relative to a deployed CubeSat.

David Spencer, Prox-1's principal investigator, explains that most proximity operations to date have had ground controls behind them- that is, people on earth have to do the bulk of the work manually.

"They're effectively joysticking the spacecraft," says Spencer, a professor in the Guggenheim School of AE.

But Prox-1 uses a technology called AutoNav, whose infrared imaging is key to orbital determination and trajectory control.  When it's launched around 2015 or so, Prox-1 will first release a separate satellite (the CubeSat), and it will then demonstrate its automated abilities to trail the CubeSat and circumnavigate it.

The entire mission is expected to take about six weeks, but for now, there's still a lot more work and testing to be done.  Over the past two years, Spencer says, about 60 students (both undergraduate and graduate) have been involved with Prox-1.  Most are engineering majors, though some are from other disciplines.

Frieman, who's been involved with Prox-1 since he was an undergraduate in Spencer's senior design class, hopes to stick with the mission through its launch.  He serves as both its systems engineer and propulsion subsystem lead.

He spends between 15 and 20 hours a week working on Prox-1, which ties in with his graduate studies in electric propulsion.  He was also among the students who traveled to Albuquerque, N.M., to compete in the UNP competition.

When he learned Prox-1 had won in its category, Frieman syas, "I was surprised, excited, numb - it was just a whole range of emotions going on."

Prox-1's achievements are seminal not only for Georgia Tech, but for the Center for Space Systems (CSS) as well.  Established in 2008, CSS uses a multidisciplinary approach to design and develop advanced space systems, and Prox-1 is one of its projects.

Spencer, who is also the CSS director, says the UNP win is a big boost.

"To have this sucess," he says, "is a big step forward towards our goals."

hpep lab

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Prof. Mitchell Walker in the High-Power Electric Propulsion Lab