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Photo of Earth captured from a “CubeSat” launched by Pacific engineering students and faculty, students from Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla in Mexico, Tierra Luna Engineering and JP Aerospace.

Photo of Earth captured from a “CubeSat” launched by Pacific engineering students and faculty, students from Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla in Mexico, Tierra Luna Engineering and JP Aerospace.

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Pacific News

Student engineers send tiger into space

Undergraduate research propels hands-on learning, international partnerships
Jennifer LanghamNov 25, 2015

In the early morning chill on Sunday near Lovelock, Nevada, University of the Pacific engineering students and faculty helped test launch a tiny satellite carrying a payload they designed.

The satellite, called a "CubeSat" because of its size and shape, was attached to a high-altitude balloon and took photos of Earth from about 100,000 feet before returning safely to firm soil. One day it could be used to monitor volcanic activity in Mexico or fly to the International Space Station.

"We need to empower our local students and give them a taste of what can be accomplished if given the opportunity," José Hernández, a Pacific alumnus, former astronaut and Pacific regent, said in a statement from his firm, Tierra Luna Engineering. "Science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM, programs are what will help our local economy grow, but the process takes several years. We ask that our local leaders see this as an opportunity and as an investment for our community."

Hernández, who earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering at Pacific and promotes STEM education through the Prep USA - Reach for the Stars Academy each summer at Pacific, helped connect the university with Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla in Mexico. Besides Tierra Luna Engineering, Rancho Cordova's JP Aerospace is also involved with the international project.

Delia Davila, a Pacific bioengineering major from Stockton who will graduate in 2016, and the other members of Pacific's Society for Women Engineers Team Tech have already seen the results of this invaluable experience. The team won second place for its CubeSat research at the Society for Women Engineers conference in Nashville on Oct. 22-25.

"I was excited about the opportunity to meet and work with José Hernández," said Davila, whose father met Hernández in the 1980s after her parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico. "His career has been an inspiration to me."

Hernández arranged for the Pacific team to partner with engineering students in Mexico who researched materials and designed the satellite exterior. The Pacific students were responsible for the payload.

"Taking pictures is what our project is all about," said Louise Stark, one of two faculty advisers who met with Pacific's team at least weekly throughout the past year. The students had a budget of $5,000, provided by Hernández's engineering firm, and they spent only $1,000.



The payload engineered by University of the Pacific's Society of Women Engineers Tech Team (center) included a Pacific Tiger. One day the Pacific SWE CubeSat could be used to monitor volcanic activity in Mexico.

The Pacific CubeSat frame was created using a university 3-D printer. One side of the CubeSat sports a stuffed Pacific Tiger, while sensors on the other five sides of the cube take photos. The students wrote software that figures out which pictures show Earth and which show space.

"Transmitting pictures back to Earth takes significant energy from the CubeSat's batteries, so developing a way for the device to determine which pictures are most useful and to transmit only those makes the satellite's mission more effective," explained Stark.

This feature could enhance the satellite's planned future mission to monitor volcanic activity in Mexico. Eventually, Pacific's team and its industry partners would like to send the CubeSat into outer space on a rocket or on a spacecraft bound for the International Space Station.

Davila's experience in Team Tech has already led to opportunities. Last summer she was accepted into a 10-week undergraduate research program in North Dakota, where she worked on another small satellite.

"My part of the research was on transforming low-quality images taken from a satellite into higher quality ones," said Davila. "The field of small satellites has grown exponentially in the last few years, so it was great to have additional exposure to research and to learn actual engineering skills."



Members of University of the Pacific's Society
of Women Engineers Tech Team, which won
second place at the SWE conference in Nashville,
Tennessee, assemble a CubeSat in September.
The CubeSat was test-launched over the
weekend outside Lovelock, Nevada, and some
day could be used to monitor volcanic activity
in Mexico.

Davila is interested in medical technology, including imaging, as a possible career path. She is also interested in continued collaborations with the students in Mexico. As the only Spanish-speaking student on Pacific's team, Davila helped translate the videoconferences between the two universities. She hopes to go to UPAEP next summer as part of an educational exchange program.

"With a research project like this, students learn how to work with people in industry, how to work with a team, and how to create a functioning product," Stark said. "These are all skills that employers and graduate schools are looking for when our students finish at Pacific."

For Davila, being a part of a SWE team and traveling to the recent Society of Women Engineers conference has also given her an interest in community outreach.

"My passion is helping and mentoring others, and especially encouraging girls to go into STEM careers," she said. "I'm so lucky that I've had strong role models and that I've gotten to meet women who have done this career, and I'd like to show my community how amazing science is."

Media contact:
Keith Michaud | 209.946.3275 (office) | 209.470.3206 (cell) | kmichaud@pacific.edu