Casey Eaton and Ben Campbell
Casey Eaton, left, and Ben Campbell, both doctoral candidates in the College of Engineering at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), have received 2023-2024 Alabama Space Grant Consortium Fellowships.
Michael Mercier | UAH

Two doctoral candidates in the College of Engineering at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), Ben Campbell and Casey Eaton, have received 2023-2024 Alabama Space Grant Consortium (ASGC) Fellowships. Campbell is working on a new way to deploy satellites, and Eaton is exploring technical measurement for systems and guidance for selecting them.

Managed at UAH, a part of the University of Alabama System, the consortium provides support for graduate students to supplement and enhance research that can benefit NASA’s mission directorates through the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program.

Awards are made initially for one 12-month period and may be renewed annually for a maximum of three years. The award includes $24,000 for student stipend and up to $12,000 for tuition/insurance and $1,000 student travel allowance each year.

Campbell, an aerospace systems engineering major, won the fellowship for his proposal “Investigation of Alternative Satellite Constellation Dispersion Techniques Utilizing Momentum Exchange Tethers.”

Eaton’s award is a one-year renewal of last year’s fellowship for her project “Selection and Impact of Technical Metrics in Complex Engineering Systems.” She is pursuing a doctorate in systems engineering.

Campbell was inspired by an ancient human invention – “a shepherd’s sling, like that used in the story of David and Goliath” – to develop his plan to employ momentum exchange tethers to disperse satellite constellations much faster than methods currently in use.

“It will be a very flexible way to rapidly establish satellite constellations either in low-Earth orbit or also around the moon or Mars – or any other place you might put a manned settlement.”

He says that, while researching satellite constellations, he hasn’t found any indication that tethers have even been considered.

“When I first had the idea, I started thinking, ‘Why aren’t we doing this already?’ Some of it just makes sense. There are technical challenges, but there are some unique advantages that can come from this whole concept.”

Current deployment methods, such as one used by Starlink, employs an electric propulsion system, Campbell explains. “They’re very efficient, but they’re very low thrust, so it takes a long time to get anywhere.”

He started and has been working on a technology demonstration mission with help from members of UAH’s Space Hardware Club, and plans on launching this concept to space in 2024 with NASA.

“The system that we’re flying is going to be very small – around the size of CubeSats. Traditionally, propulsion to get anywhere far can be difficult to pull off at that scale unless you have extensive funding or technical resources.”

Campbell’s mechanical tether is a simpler system that doesn’t require an engine attached to the satellite. For the test system, he’s using rolled-up tape measures for his tethers.

“My team first thought I was joking, but tape measures are a really useful tool for a lot of small satellite mechanisms in general. People can get pretty creative with them, and this is going to be one new way that they can be used.”

While Eaton was working on her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UAH, she discovered that there was not as much information about the theory and guidance for technical measurement as she had expected to find.

In her grant proposal, she lays out the potential problem of choosing the wrong measurement system:

“Can measures influence a design away from its goal? Given the reliance on measures in the development of large-scale complex engineered systems, understanding when measures are subject to distortion and collapse can prevent designs that misalign with goals.”

While examining case studies of different engineering failures to see if measures played a role, she found “several example case studies where people had at least perceived that the problem came with measurement.”

Now she is performing a systematic review of available guidance on how to select technical measures. She’s examined some 2,000 guidance statements but has not found many specifics.

“There are a lot of things that say to make it a relevant measure or a specific measure or a measurable measure. But how do you do that? There’s not a lot of help out there on that.”

Eaton’s ultimate goal is to develop “a grounded theoretical backing to the selection of measures” which can help “avoid a trial-and-error process for developing sets of technical measures.”

Since NASA depends on designing large-scale complex engineering systems for most if not all of its endeavors, Eaton’s research could make a significant impact. She says this could be especially beneficial for novel systems and commercial space flight partners.