The Texas Spacecraft Lab (TSL) was selected in December as one of 12 finalists to compete in the University Nanosatellite-4 competition. The University Nanosatellite program is a national competition held every two years to design, build, and test a real satellite with a budget of approximately $100,000.  The competition is sponsored by the US Air Force Office of Space Research, NASA, and the AIAA.  The grand prize of the competition is a free launch into space for the winning team’s satellite. 

The new University of Texas proposal, called PORTIS (Proximity Operations Rapid Turnout Inspector Satellite) is advised by Professors Lightsey, Bishop, and Raja in the ASE/EM Department.  PORTIS builds upon the success of the FASTRAC mission (Formation Autonomy Spacecraft with Thrust, Relnav, Attitude, and Crosslink). FASTRAC was recently selected as the winner of the UN-3 competition and is planned to be launched into space in 2006. 

Like FASTRAC, PORTIS is designed to improve the ability of small satellites to work together in space.  However, the experiments on PORTIS will be different from those on FASTRAC.  Before PORTIS even launches, it will be assembled and tested within 5 days, as opposed to months for traditional satellites.  This means the satellite could be rapidly launched if needed.   Like FASTRAC, PORTIS will separate into two satellites on-orbit.  However, unlike FASTRAC, the PORTIS satellites will stay within 10 kilometers of each other and there are several controlled approaches of the satellites to within a few meters.  Each PORTIS satellite contains a camera which will be used to take pictures of the other, which will then be transmitted to the ground.  PORTIS is sort of like two robot tourists going on a trip and taking souvenir photos of each other when they reach their destination.

These capabilities are important for future satellite missions which will emphasize small satellites working in groups.  For example, a satellite like PORTIS could be launched on short notice and used to inspect the Space Shuttle or Space Station for damage.  There are many other possible applications of these same technologies.

Congratulations to the Texas Spacecraft Lab on their selection as a finalist in another Nanosatellite competition!