FAIRMONT – The only space craft to ever be constructed in West Virginia – the Simulation to Flight 1 – launched into space just over a year ago.
The unmanned module was only supposed to orbit Earth for about three months, but the pod has remained in orbit where it continually collects data for four different NASA-related experiments.
“We’re very proud to say we have done one year in orbit,” said Scott Zemerick, chief engineer of TMC Technologies and program manager. “We have successfully hit all of our research and scientific goals, so any other additional research we can do, any additional data that we can download is really additional icing on the cake as far as this mission goes.
Engineers at TMC Technologies built and programmed the pod, and sent it away to be launched into space.
For the engineers, this accomplishment is not only groundbreaking, but exciting, especially after the craft earned national recognition for its programming.
“We were runner-up for NASA’s software of the year award,” said Matt Grubb, STF-1 lead engineer. “We’re really proud to say that software is now proven in space, we can use it to work on our STF-2, our next mission, as well.”
Grubb said the construction and programming of the module required years of planning to meet the needs of the mission. In order to ensure the craft would operate at the necessary level, engineers used a simulation program to map out the trajectory of the program, hence the name Simulation to Flight.
“We didn’t expect it to live this long. Our initial mission was three months, that’s the typical lifetime of these cube sets. At the end of three months everything looked stellar,” Grubb said. “Now we’re up to a year, and the scientists continue to ask for data, because the more data they get, the more they can expand their research.”
Grubb also said the importance of the simulation could not be understated, because the average failure rate for crafts like STF-1 hover around 41 percent, so tests were imperative.
“There’s a pretty high failure rate,” Grubb said. “This being the first one West Virginia has had, we didn’t want to take that option. We had a zero percent chance of failure, 100 percent chance of success and the simulator led to that.”
According to Grubb, STF-1 uses a relatively cheap processor, one that may be used in an device as small as a toaster, which is also about the size of the craft. The project as a whole cost just under $1 million, which is relatively cheap for an initiative of this kind and length.
“Overall budget cost was about $900,000,” said Justin Morris, principal investigator for NASA. “Your materials, you’re probably talking about $200,000. It was actually a very bottom-up approach, a lot of organizations, universities provided funding for this project.
“We believe one of the lowest cost small sets in NASA.”
Engineers can track the location of the STF-1 module in real time, and view its trajectory around the earth via the web at stf1.com. The engineers in West Virginia communicate with STF-1 when it passes over the region, and they also attached a camera to the craft, which became one of the creators’ favorite aspects.
Grubb said now that the capsule is in operation, other organizations can download the software the engineers used for programming and further extend the influence of the project.
“We’re working with universities and other government agencies across the country to put this into place,” Grubb said. “It’s open source so anyone can go online and get it... So that has driven people from other countries, Japan ... and I think we have University of Israel is using it.”
To have this kind of impact on NASA and its data collection capabilities is an achievement for the craft’s programmers and engineers. However, many at TMC are simply proud it was created in West Virginia.
“As far as the significance to West Virginia, it’s just pretty incredible to be a part of the team,” Morris said. “A lot of West Virginia natives are on this team which means a lot, but more importantly, that it was actually built and tested in West Virginia, it was pretty cool to be a part of.”
Grubb said the team is planning its next mission with the goal of making STF-2 as equally successful.
“This one proved that some of our technologies we could fit in orbit and be successful flying them on a real space craft,” Zemerick said. “Now we’re going to think about ways we can apply this to a second cube set in orbit, or STF-2.”