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A team of engineering students at the University at Buffalo is building a satellite to better track all the junk that’s hurtling through space on a dangerous collision course.

But they had one problem: How do they get their shoe box-sized satellite into orbit?

The answer came earlier this month when they learned GLADOS – that’s what they named it – could hitch a ride with NASA.

The project – led by John Crassidis, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UB – was one of 24 selected to piggyback aboard one of NASA’s upcoming missions.

“It’s a little more consequential than your typical homework assignment,” said Brian Bezanson, a graduate student majoring in physics and one of those building the satellite. “A whole lot of money is invested in it, and once it goes up into orbit, you can’t go fix anything that goes wrong.”

The project stems from Crassidis’ work on tracking space junk: inactive satellites, parts from old spacecrafts or any other remnants from prior missions.

NASA estimates there are 22,000 pieces of debris – some of it tiny – flying around Earth’s lower orbit, which stretches several hundred miles above the surface of the planet, Crassidis said.

“The problem is the stuff up there is flying at 17,500 mph,” Crassidis said. “Something the size of a marble could wipe out the Hubble telescope.”

And it happens. In 2009, for example, an out-of-service Russian satellite collided with a telecommunications satellite, littering space with hundreds more pieces of smaller debris.

While there are satellites and telescopes on the ground to monitor space junk, it’s harder to track higher up in orbit.

Crassidis, however, received more than $1 million in federal money a few years ago to further develop his theories on using glints of sunlight reflecting off space debris to determine size, shape, mass and spin of the debris.

His work could help predict the path of space debris and avoid future orbital collisions.

But Crassidis needs data from space, and that’s where GLADOS – Glint Analyzing Data Observation Satellite – comes in.

Two Air Force grants, totaling $300,000, provided funding to build a prototype. Engineering students at UB, eager to get their fingerprints on something bound for space, were more than happy to help.

“In terms of real, hands-on experience, there’s nothing that comes close,” said Andrew Dianetti, a senior from Lancaster majoring in aerospace engineering.

Some 40 UB students – mostly undergraduates – are involved in building GLADOS. They’re broken into teams and are overseen by Dianetti, the project manager, and Nikita Butakov, a senior who serves as lead engineer.

“It was pretty daunting at first,” said Butakov, an electrical engineering major from the Rochester area, “but now we got a pretty good grasp of what we need to do.”

In fact, what they have learned in classes made more sense after working on GLADOS.

“I realized how useful that work is and how it applies,” said sophomore Muhammed Khan, an aerospace engineering major.

Their creation turned out to be a shoe box-sized satellite powered by solar panels installed on three sides.

Inside the aluminum casing are two camera lenses, along with boxes containing electronic components and reaction wheels to turn the satellite in any direction. It will be controlled from the lab on the North Campus in Amherst.

“We’re at the point where we have all of our hardware and we’re working on testing the hardware and integrating it together,” Dianetti said. “After that, we’ll actually do the testing to make sure it will withstand the space environment.”

Of course, there was still that issue of getting GLADOS into space – until they entered their project into NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative.

NASA started the initiative in 2008, as more and more schools started teaching students how to build these low-cost “nanosatellites” but had no way to launch them, said Jason Crusan, who heads the CubeSat program.

The program has been a good way to get young people interested in science and engineering.

“Once you get the bug of flying hardware in space, it’s something that you never really lose,” Crusan said. “It’s a pretty good motivator, in our experience.”

Since the program began, NASA has awarded rides into space to more than 80 satellite projects, he said. In this round, GLADOS was competing against 33 projects from other universities, private corporations and even NASA itself.

Crassidis is still raising money to finish the GLADOS project, which is OK, because the launch depends upon the NASA missions and room aboard its rockets. A GLADOS launch is probably at least two years away, with NASA giving UB notice 18 months beforehand.

GLADOS will be ready, Crassidis said.

“I have confidence it’s going to go up and it’s going to fly,” Crassidis said, “but I’ll be nervous.”

email: jrey@buffnews.com