NASA Independent Test Capability Team Building State’s First Satellite

A team of software developers and engineers led by Fairmont-based TMC Technologies Inc. (TMC) has been quietly making a giant impact on the success of several NASA spacecraft missions, including West Virginia’s first Simulation to Flight-1, or STF-1 satellite.

The team is called the NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation (NASA IV&V) Test Capability Team. What they mainly do is develop software that simulates what a spacecraft endures.

“The goal is to make sure the flight software will do what it’s supposed to do when it’s in orbit,” TMCProgram Manager Scott Zemerick explained.

 To achieve that goal, Zemerick said the nine-member team develops software that simulates every aspect of the spacecraft’s mission, from what it could expect when it launches to the rigors of orbiting the Earth.

“Meaning you can run that spacecraft from a laptop as if you were sitting at an operator station at NASA,” Zemerick said.

Some projects the team has worked on include James Webb Space Telescope, Space Launch System, the DSCOVR or Deep Space Climate Observatory and the Global Precipitation Management mission.

The real value, Zemerick said, is the opportunity for mission training and the ability to perform what he calls fault testing.

“We provide risk mitigation and mission assurance and increase the chances of mission success.” he said.

The ITC also is heavily involved in the building and eventual launch of West Virginia’s first spacecraft, STF-1. In February 2015, the STF-1 project was selected for participation in NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative. STF-1 will fly as a payload on the ElAnA XIX Electron, before being deployed at 500 km above Earth’s surface. The project is a collaboration among TMC, West Virginia University and NASA IV&V.

The spacecraft, or “CubeSat,” is 13.9 inches high, weighing a little more than eight pounds. Its primary goal will be to demonstrate the capabilities of the software-only simulation environments developed at NASA’s IV&V program to better support current and future NASA missions. It also will contain and perform four experiments from WVU faculty in the computer science and electrical engineering, physics and astronomy, as well as mechanical and aerospace engineering, departments.

“The primary focus of it is to demonstrate the simulation and modeling technologies that TMC has developed for NASA to showcase it in a CubeSat,” Zemerick said.

In simple terms, the team is not only building the actual space vehicle, but they also are developing and testing the software on the ground through special simulations. Then, as Zemerick explained, when ready, the software is used in real life.

CubeSats are small, inexpensive spacecraft that typically are built using off-the-shelf components to conduct research in a space environment.

The cost-effective nature of the STF-1 project could be a game-changer in the CubeSat, or “micro-satellite,” industry. According to Lead Engineer Matt Grubb, the West Virginia team is focused on keeping costs down.

 “Even what we are working on, we are trying to build this at a fraction of the cost of other CubeSat projects run out of large NASA facilities,” Grubb said. “So, instead of a $10 million CubeSat, we are about $300,000.”

Grubb, who said he’s never been involved in a satellite project before, did work in a remote robotics environment at WVU. He said his robotics work prepared him for what he calls the next step.

“With robotics, you can fix your mistakes if something goes wrong,” Grubb said. “But with the CubeSat, as soon as we deliver it for launching, we’re done.”

STF-1 could launch sometime this year, possibly by late Fall. But the mission itself has a relatively short life span of anywhere from three to six months in space, after which STF-1 orbit will degrade and it eventually will burn up in the atmosphere.

“It’s also really awesome that this will be West Virginia’s first spacecraft to be launched,” Grubb said. “It’s all built by West Virginia University graduates. We’re all really proud of that.”

The pre-flight tests and launch will be provided by NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative program. The mission development, which is a total commitment of more than $200,000 plus manpower, is funded by NASA’s IV&V, WVU and the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium. The work is also being completed in collaboration with manpower and test facilities from TMC and Orbital ATK.

NASA Independent Test Capability Team Building State’s First Satellite by John Dahlia