At a glance, one might not immediately notice the changes at 1311 Research Drive in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center.

High up on the rooftop, however, there has been a flurry of activity as assembly and installation of new space science instrumentation is underway.

This strategic investment in technology will better position Virginia Tech to participate in high-profile small satellite missions and increase research opportunities in space science and technology, as well as space traffic management.

The $305,000 investment in three different subsystems was born out of a multidisciplinary collaboration among the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Hume Center for National Security and Technology, and the Center for Space Science and Engineering (commonly known as Space@VT).

“The acquisition of the new rooftop instrumentation is a reflection of Virginia Tech’s commitment to bolstering research in the realm of space science engineering,” said Eric Paterson, department head for the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering and interim director of the Hume Center for National Security and Technology. “This investment serves to enhance Virginia Tech's space science capabilities and elevate numerous ongoing research and educational projects.”

Among the new technology subsystems installed on the roof of the research building, known as RB1311 and home to the Hume Center, is a telescope dome, an S-Band dish antenna and nonpenetrating roof mount, a weatherproof rack mount electronics enclosure, and six terrestrial antenna mounts.

The dome is a Pier-Tech PTD1, a 14.5 foot stand-alone dome with a bi-parting walk-in door. The structure is composed of an aluminum subframe and a Galvalume skin with interlocking dome sheets, providing a watertight design able to withstand harsh weather conditions. The dome is fully automated and can be operated remotely from one of Virginia Tech’s ground station operations centers. The dome allows full view of the sky, or 360 degrees in azimuth and 0 to 90 in elevation. Virginia Tech has also added a Pier-Tech PT3 pier within the dome, allowing the telescope inside to be raised and lowered remotely.

The new 14-inch telescope housed inside the dome is a Celestron RASA 36cm model. The telescope will be mounted on a Moog QPT-500 Pan/Tilt Unit, a high-precision tracking pedestal allowing researchers to mount multiple telescopes and other instruments simultaneously and switch between capabilities without having to physically swap out instrumentation.

Across the roof, a new 2.4-meter diameter satellite dish antenna will be in motion frequently and is capable of full dome coverage to track various spacecraft and satellites passing overhead in low Earth-orbit, as well as spacecraft in geosynchronous and lunar orbits. The newest addition to the Virginia Tech Ground Station, the antenna will be capable of transmit and receive operations in the S-Band frequency allocations and will be capable of receiving in X-Band.  

These two bands are becoming more commonly used for advanced smallsat missions requiring increased data speeds and will position Virginia Tech for cutting-edge research in the realm of smallsat communications. The dish can withstand winds up to 130 mph and remain operational up to 100 mph. Additionally, the rack-mounted enclosure will house all of the radio frequency electronics for the ground station.

Photo: Zachary Leffke for Virginia Tech.
Parts for the three new subsystems, which include a telescope dome, a dish antenna, and a weatherproof rack mount electronics enclosure, are lifted by crane to the rooftop of the Hume Center for National Security and Technology. Photo: Zachary Leffke for Virginia Tech.

“The new roof technology will have overlapping uses for a multitude of programs, and boost research and educational opportunities,” said Jonathan Black, professor in aerospace and ocean engineering, co-director for Space@VT, and director of the Aerospace and Ocean Systems Lab at the Hume Center. “Potential student projects might include monitoring the integration of drones into local airspace, writing control algorithms for the telescope to point and track aircraft, or tracking and communicating with smallsats built here at Virginia Tech and elsewhere.”

For the telescope, each of the subsystems will be connected over an internal network in RB311 to dedicated control and image processing servers and data storage systems. The network software will unify the tracking interfaces, so that the dome and telescope synchronously move together. Future plans include adding separate camera feeds to monitor the external and internal systems in motion to ensure safety and maintain smooth operations.

The telescope network will be remotely accessible via secure VPNs to authorized students and researchers. While the Space@VT operations center will be the primary location for accessing the network, there is also a small operations center in the Hume Center for restricted research projects, and it will be accessible from anywhere with an internet connection.

With the addition of the roof subsystems, Virginia Tech now offers three tracking stations as part of the Virginia Tech Ground Station: the educational ground station on Prices Fork Road; large dishes at Network Infrastructure and Services; and now at RB1311. These systems are also connected over secure VPN connections allowing remote access for Virginia Tech student and faculty operators and other project collaborators.  

The Virginia Tech Ground Station systems are part of the larger Virginia Ground Station Network, created in connection with the Virginia Cubesat Constellation program. The Virginia Ground Station Network federates multiple ground station assets in the commonwealth, including tracking stations at the University of Virginia, Old Dominion University, and the NASA Wallops Flight Facility. Currently there are plans for expansion to make those resources accessible to any member of the Virginia Ground Station Network and partner organizations, thus stimulating collaboration, providing backup communications capability, and enabling new mission concepts. The Virginia Ground Station Network project is currently led by Virginia Tech with support from the Commonwealth of Virginia through the Virginia Smallsat Data Consortium.

Through the expansion of existing capabilities, students will have the opportunity to build the enabling ground infrastructure, work in space operations, and collaborate with partnering universities and industry to support space missions across the state of Virginia. 

— Written by Jama Green