Crash & learn: Big Island-boosted satellite project will get second launch

  • Photo courtesy Christian Wong The Hiapo satellite was intended to measure the Earth's magnetic field, but was destroyed along with the Firefly Alpha earlier this month.

  • Photo courtesy Christian Wong The Hiapo satellite was intended to measure the Earth's magnetic field, but was destroyed along with the Firefly Alpha earlier this month.

  • Photo courtesy Firefly Aerospace Firefly Alpha launched Sept. 3 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

A satellite built with the assistance of Big Island students was destroyed earlier this month during a rocket launch, but the project will get a second chance soon.

In 2019, the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Institute for Astronomy teamed up with the Hilo-based Hawaii Science and Technology Museum to develop a miniature satellite, called a CubeSat, that would be launched into space on the inaugural flight of Firefly Alpha, an unmanned launch vehicle developed by private company Firefly Aerospace.

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Firefly Alpha launched Sept. 3 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with the CubeSat on board.

Within three minutes, the rocket and its entire payload were destroyed after a catastrophic engine failure.

“That was Firefly Alpha’s first launch, and the fact is first launches don’t have the best track record,” said avionics engineer Amber Imai-Hong of UH-Manoa’s Hawaii Space Flight Laboratory, which developed the satellite.

Despite the loss of the satellite, Imai-Hong said HSFL and HSTM are working on a replacement that will be a part of the payload of Firefly Alpha 2.

Both satellites — called Hiapo and Hiapo 2.0 — are intended to take measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field, while serving as an introduction to aerospace design for students.

Imai-Hong said Hiapo was developed after HSTM was selected as one of 26 participants to contribute a 10-cubic-centimeter satellite to Firefly Alpha’s payload. In order to cheaply develop the satellite, HSTM partnered with HSFL to create Project POKE, an initiative to develop a low-cost CubeSat kit.

While most CubeSats cost about $120,000 to construct, Imai-Hong said Hiapo was built with spare parts.

“As you might expect, putting spare electronics together doesn’t always give you the results you want,” Imai-Hong said. “But we worked through it.”

In 2020, UH-Manoa received a $500,000 NASA grant to develop low-cost CubeSat kits to be used as undergraduate projects. Hiapo 2.0 will be built using one of these kits, Imai-Hong said.

Imai-Hong said more than 100 UH students participated in the construction of Hiapo, from the design phase all the way to final testing.

Meanwhile, HSTM director Christian Wong said about 30 Hilo middle and high school students participated in virtual lessons to learn about the satellite.

Imai-Hong and NASA Jet Propulsion Lab engineer Heather Bottom mentored students in design and project-management skills, even using a clean room provided by UH. This process lead Wong to decide on the satellite’s name. “Hiapo” means “eldest child,” which reflects the mentor-student relationship that created the satellite, Imai-Hong said.

Imai-Hong said she has higher hopes for Firefly Alpha 2, which she said might launch late this year.

“But no matter what happens, we’ll learn a lot more,” Imai-Hong said. “None of this is wasted.”

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“The launch was still awesome, even if it ended badly,” Wong said. “It was such a fantastic day, I had such a sense of pride to see the rocket on the pad, knowing it had a satellite that we had worked on for two years.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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