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NNSA lab wins DOE achievement award for Beanie Baby-box inspired CubeSats

When a college professor challenged his students to turn a Beanie Baby display box into a space satellite in 2009, he couldn’t have predicted that this assignment would help provide Special Operations Forces with award-winning space capabilities 6 years later.

Professor of space sciences at Morehead State University Robert Twiggs became the founding father of CubeSat technology when he asked his students to complete a satellite project quickly, before graduation by keeping them small. The bigger the satellites were, the more elaborate the students made them, stretching out completion time. By restricting the size, Twiggs and his students reduced the time from design to launch.

A team of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) scientists earned the Secretary of Energy Achievement Award last week for their innovative small-satellite concept that originated with the Beanie Baby assignment. LANL subsequently has developed and launched eight “Prometheus” CubeSats, or miniaturized satellites, in support of United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).

“I thought, maybe if I make this small enough, they can’t keep putting stuff in it,” Twiggs told NASA Edge. “I knew I had to have a cube, because we were not stabilizing these, and I needed to put solar panels on all six sides. At a plastics shop I found a four-inch Beanie Baby box.”

It was the quick and effective work of the LANL team that won them the achievement award. The team combined technical expertise with collaboration with USSOCOM and surpassed challenging goals under an aggressive launch timeline with a very small budget.

“Many in the space community were skeptical of the approach and predicted publicly that the system would not work,” USSOCOM Cmdr. Adm. William McRaven said. “Now these same skeptics are adopting many of the concepts and the approach that was taken on Prometheus.”

The eight Prometheus satellites make up a constellation that can help perform communications for USSOCOM operations aimed at combating terrorism around the globe.

“The creativity, dedication, long hours, and incredible problem solving skills of your team are a credit to the DOE in service to our national security mission,” the award noted.

Learn more about CubeSats from the CubeSat Project website, and read about the LANL team’s award here.