By Brian Lazenby
Will Barrette launched a satellite in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, last year that outperformed technology giants such as Google and Intel.
The launch of Barrette’s “CanSat,” a satellite roughly the size of a soft drink can, was part of an annual competition to successfully design and launch a satellite from a rocket at about 10,000 feet. Barrette’s plan was to launch his satellite and broadcast Wi-Fi from that altitude, which would then transmit a live video signal from a camera in the satellite to the ground.
He says it was about 95 percent successful.
“I didn’t have much faith in it,” says Barrette, 19, of the satellite he built for less than $200. “I was prepared for it to fail, but it exceeded expectations.”
The only fault in the test was that the satellite shook violently during the launch, which caused the camera to reboot. Barrette didn’t get all the camera footage he had hoped for, but the attempt to broadcast a Wi-Fi signal at 10,000 feet was a success.
Google and Intel also launched satellites attempting the same thing, but their tests were not as successful as Barrette’s. Both companies have since contacted the senior at Morehead State University, and now Intel wants him to use their Edison 3 processor in his next launch.
Barrette, who attended Menifee County High School and the elite Gatton Academy, declined to say whether he will take them up on their offer, but he is now working on a new “pocket cube” satellite project that he says he can’t talk about yet.
Bluegrass rocket science
When you think about NASA, outer space and satellites, you probably think of Houston, Texas, or Cape Canaveral, Florida. But the space science program at MSU is giving students like Barrette hands-on experience with meaningful astrophysics research.
The Space Science Center at MSU is a division of the Department of Earth and Space Science in the College of Science and Technology. It houses MSU’s space science program of distinction and has become an important center for research in micro- and nano-satellite technologies, which involves the study of small, inexpensive but highly capable satellites that are now being used by NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense, aerospace companies and universities around the globe.
Dr. Robert Kroll, a professor and researcher at MSU’s Space Center, says most people in Eastern Kentucky have no idea the facility is here.
“We are known internationally, but not locally,” he says. “It is the best-kept secret in Kentucky.”
The program was founded by Dr. Ben Malphrus in a small closet, but after moving into multiple locations — each a little bigger than the one before — a modern Space Science Center was built in 2009. NASA now contracts with the program to build and test satellites prior to launch.
The program is also home to one of the only 21-meter satellite dishes in the country. The large dish can be seen sitting on a hill overlooking the campus and is used to track satellites as they pass in orbit high overhead the Kentucky sky.
“We do a lot of different things with NASA,” Kroll says. “We can do everything here but launch the satellites.”
A space future
Professors at the Space and Science Center call Barrette one of the program’s “shining stars.”
But Barrette, who now has the attention of both Intel and Google, humbly shrugged at the notion that either company might want him on their staff. He has no immediate plans to join forces with a tech company, NASA or a space engineering firm. He is preparing to graduate soon with a Bachelor of Science in space systems engineering. He plans to spend the summer conducting research in Brazil before continuing his education at MSU in graduate school.
“I could have gone to UK or WKU, but this has everything that I want,” he says. “It is the community here that allowed me to go to the desert and do those things. That’s why I came to Morehead State. I knew I couldn’t get that anywhere else.”
In addition to being part of a program that is conducting meaningful space research, Barrette says he was attracted to the program because of the open access he has to the professors, equipment and some of the best minds in the field.
“We can do almost anything here,” he says.
Because most kids in rural Kentucky never consider a career in space engineering, Kroll says it is not enough to simply inspire the students within the program at MSU. It is vital to get the younger generation interested in science and space technology.
“We want to teach our kids not to be dependent on technology, but to master it,” he says.