Spring 2008 Issue


University of Kentucky Students Exposed to
Aerospace Careers via Amateur Radio

This is the story of a unique aircraft wing that was created and has taken flight at the University of Kentucky (UK) and is now nurtured at both that university and Oklahoma State University (OSU). It involves a unique project for the U.S. space programís future Mars exploration. Here KG4YLM tells the UK story.

By Bill Smith, KG4YLM



The armada of packet and video Yagi antennas at the launch site of BIG BLUE 1. (All photos courtesy of the author)

Some of us faculty at the University of Kentucky (UK) had satisfying careers in the aerospace industry before entering academia and have continued with aerospace-related projects, primarily at the graduate level. UK does not, however, have an aerospace engineering program. Throughout the years, we have had students enter the aerospace industry despite the lack of a formal program. We needed a better tool to get our students exposed to projects in this vital scientific area.

Recognizing the future personnel needs of the aerospace profession, NASA initiated a Workforce Development program in 2002. One of the primary objectives was for the program student/participant to have a rich aerospace experience leading to increased interest in an aerospace career so as to maintain a strong workforce in the industry. This consideration is at the core of the University of Kentuckyís NASA-supported project BIG BLUE. The project is inherently multi-disciplinary (like most real industry engineering projects), aimed primarily at undergraduates, and has led to an optional aerospace certificate earned along with a BS in Mechanical Engineering. A relatively high percentage of participating BIG BLUE students continue with aerospace-related careers or graduate studies.

BIG BLUE is an acronym for Baseline Inflatable-wing Glider Balloon-Launch Unmanned Experiment. It took the UK students a few days to come up with a title that is also the universityís nickname.

The BIG BLUE program began in 2002 with high-altitude ballooning and has spun off into other amateur radio related projects at UK involving UAV (unmanned autonomous airborne aircraft), amateur space nano-satellites, and rocket sub-orbital launches.

Most of this article deals with the UK BIG BLUE student experience with high-altitude balloon launches. It begins with an overview of the BIG BLUE genesis. Details of the platform and amateur radio communications required for our high-altitude balloon projects and hardware are described. The BIG BLUE follow-on projects at UK are then outlined. A summary of the student aerospace experience is also presented.

We started with a team of non-hams and came a long way relatively quickly through the support of some very experienced folks in the local amateur radio community (some of whom are mentioned below). Ham radio is a part of each of these projects. The projects included voice, data, and video signals on the 2-meter, 70-cm, 33-cm, and 13-cm bands. Important to most of these projects are small-size, low-weight, and low-power transceivers that work in a wide variety of temperature ranges and atmospheric pressures over relatively long ranges. These parameters presented the students with design challenges.

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