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WMU Students Want To Put A Satellite In Space

An artist rendering of Montana State University's Explorer 1 CubeSat
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Montana State University

A group of Western Michigan University students and faculty are trying to send a satellite into space. WALI - the Western Aerospace Launch Initiative - is part of a NASA program that allows small satellites to tag along on NASA’s regular missions. The group is trying to raise the $100,000 it will take to build its satellite.

For students, it’s a rare opportunity. If working in space was easy, everybody would do it. If you think about it, not that many people work for NASA. Western has about 5,000 more students in Kalamazoo than NASA has employees in the entire country.

Kristina Lemmer teaches mechanical and aerospace engineering at WMU. She’s one of two faculty advisors for the WALI project.

“Usually space seems pretty inaccessible to the common person. Unless you work for NASA or even those who work for NASA - you know, space is still pretty unattainable. But with the CubeSat the students can be a part of designing, building, testing and doing launch operations of their own satellite.”

A CubeSat is a small, relatively inexpensive satellite cube. Lemmer says it’s about the size of a grapefruit and weighs about three pounds. She says CubeSats are so small that NASA will send them into space for free - as long as it meets all of its requirements. Lemmer says people have done all kinds of things with their CubeSats - and not just research.

“People have used them for artistic means by putting LED lights in them and then causing flashing in the skies to Morse code some kind of statement, that kind of thing,” she says.

As for WALI, Lemmer says they want to take pictures of the Earth and plasma sources in space. Plasma makes up a lot of the fiery, hot matter we see in space - like the Sun and the stars.

WALI faculty advisor Jennifer Hudson says the group just started working on its design, but it’s been gathering information for the launch for two years. WALI launched two high-altitude balloons to measure the temperature and air pressure. One of the balloons lifted about 15 miles into the air.

“It’s not exactly in space but it’s pretty close,” says WMU senior Nagual Simmons, one of about 60 students working on the project.

WALI placed a camera in one of the balloons.

That clicking is the sound of the gas being adjusted in the balloon. Simmons says it’s amazing that the group was able to find both of its balloons after the launch. 

“So the first high altitude balloon launch that we did, we didn’t check and see if GPS system was actually turned on. And so it went up and up and up. And just it’s been…I think we launched that one probably June of last year,” he says.

They just got it back two weeks ago from a farmer who found it in his field. It landed in Lynchfield, Michigan - about an hour’s drive southeast of Kalamazoo.

Lemmer says aside from the CubeSat, WALI’s other goal is to get kids interested in STEM fields - science, technology, engineering, and math. So far, the group has worked with elementary and middle school kids to model their own paper CubeSats.

“I think it’s incredibly important to get kids interested in STEM. I look even around me at the places I’ve worked in the past and I see an aging workforce in the STEM field - especially in aerospace engineering and the space community. So I feel somewhere on the way, students stop being interested in space and planets and exploration. And we need to continue that and keep that interest as well as encouraging students who don’t think they have the skills or abilities to do that.”

That sense of wonder never left Nagual Simmons.

“I’ve always liked space. I’ve always found it interesting. It’s one of those things that you can look up at but can’t actually grab” he says.

Simmons says he doesn’t think he’ll go into the space industry after college.

“But that’s why this gives me an opportunity to make it my one shot to put something in space.”

WALI - the Western Aerospace Launch Initiative - needs $100,000 to build its satellite. The group is trying to raise at least half of that through an online fundraising campaign. So far they’ve raised 1,770 with nine days left to go.

Rebecca Thiele was an environmental reporter and producer of Arts & More for WMUK. She worked at the station from 2011 to 2019.
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