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CubeRRT, the box-shaped object on the left, is shown shortly after it was deployed from the International Space Station, in the background.

NASA

Keeping up with Ohio State’s CubeRRT satellite

CubeRRT, Ohio State’s first in-orbit satellite, could make it easier for scientists to monitor the planet’s atmosphere, soil and oceans.

Joel Johnson has a large body of work that involves complex subjects, but his current project revolves around an object about the size of a cereal box.

Johnson and his collaborators expect CubeRRT — a satellite named after the 1980s video game Q*Bert and pronounced the same way — to have a big impact on how scientists study Earth’s atmosphere, soil and oceans.

Manmade signals from cell phones, TV transmitters and radios interfere with satellite measurements that help researchers understand Earth’s weather and climate. These signals “blind our sensors,” says Johnson, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Ohio State. “We put a processor on this satellite that can filter out all the transmitters you don’t want to see. By finding the natural signals and getting rid of the manmade ones, you have cleaner data.”

Matt Stoessner

NASA, which built the satellite and contributed $5.6 million in funding, looks to the CubeRRT mission to test a new way for its future radiometer missions to overcome the ever-increasing amount of radio frequency interference (RFI) that satellites encounter while collecting data.

CubeRRT, the first satellite Ohio State has sent into space, blasted off from NASA’s Wallops Island, Virginia, research station in May, en route to the International Space Station, where astronauts deployed the satellite in July. It wasn’t until August when Johnson received the first batch of data from CubeRRT and could breathe a sigh of relief.

“It’s exciting for us to keep track of CubeRRT and the progress the satellite is making,” Johnson says. “We were on pins and needles when we looked at the first data set and very excited when it came back showing everything seemed to be OK.”

Since late August, Johnson and his team have been able to “talk” with CubeRRT about once a day using the large antenna at Wallops Island’s ground station. The contact occurs when CubeRRT’s orbit brings it within view of the station. The station commands CubeRRT’s radio to turn on so that data sets can be sent to the ground and commands for new measurements can be sent to CubeRRT.

Data is loaded onto a server at Ohio State for processing and analysis. Waiting eagerly for information are members of the CubeRRT team at the ElectroScience Laboratory, including Johnson and researchers Chris Ball, Graeme Smith, Chi-Chih Chen, Andrew O’Brien, Christa McKelvey and Jiu-Kun Che. The CubeRRT team also includes researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Boulder, Colorado, company Blue Canyon Technologies Inc.

The months ahead will hold many new developments as the data set grows. The goal is to demonstrate successful operations over at least 10 hours in 10 frequency bands used for microwave Earth observations.

“It’s a lot of fun and very rewarding to see a system you worked on getting to orbit the Earth and return data from so many faraway places,” Johnson says.

Follow CubeRRT on its journey

CubeRRT will be hurtling around the Earth for several more months. You can use this tracker to view where it is at any given moment.

About the author

Laura Newpoff

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer and editor in Columbus.