Space seems untouchable to most of us on Earth. While humankind has walked on the moon, sent rovers into Mars, monitored Earth’s weather, and snapped satellite images of far reaching planets and stars, outer space remains infinite and mysterious.
One of the issues of furthering space exploration is cost. Each piece of equipment used in space can take years to design, assemble, program, and test. Zvonimir Stojanovski ’18, a mechanical and aerospace engineering major at Cornell, intrigued by space, wanted to find a way to aid the exploration of the final frontier. He found what he was looking for—working on modules for space satellites that could reduce development time and costs.
Armed with his passion for aerospace research, Stojanovski explored Cornell’s extensive research opportunities for undergraduate students. When he came across Daniel Selva, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering—whose lab focuses on developing advanced tools to support systems engineering processes, with an emphasis on space systems—Stojanovski knew it would be a great fit.
Learning about Satellites
“It was really direct. I contacted Professor Selva, and he wrote right back and gave me some books to read over the summer to prepare me for working in the lab,” says Stojanovski. So, the summer before his junior year, Stojanovski spent 40 hours a week with fellow researchers in the Selva Lab.
The graduate students in the Selva lab undertake projects such as optimization algorithms and visualizations, while undergraduates, like Stojanovski, mostly work on modelling the different satellite subsystems, as well as orbits and coverage. Each undergraduate researcher owns a project.
“My favorite part of the research is learning about how satellites work. To do something like this you have to understand what the different subsystems of the satellites are,” says Stojanovski.
The goal of the research is to introduce modules, sets of connected parts, which can be used across multiple missions to reduce their cost and development time—similar to what the automotive industry does, where many cars in a family share common components.
Modules for Earth-Observing Satellites
“We are interested in applying the module method to constellations of Earth-observing satellites, for example, for monitoring weather. However, there is a trade-off. Shared modules may reduce the performance of individual satellites, since the design is not tailored specifically to their requirements. It’s a fascinating problem,” says Stojanovski.
“I contacted Professor Selva, and he wrote right back and gave me some books to read over the summer to prepare me for working in the lab.”
Reducing the cost of designing and building satellites by having the shared modules has opened Stojanovski’s eyes about the important role of economics in technology. “We don’t want to have to make every satellite design from scratch, it is very expensive,” Stojanovski stresses.
The inputs for the program that Stojanovski works on are the requirements for a set of missions and a catalog of satellite parts. The program then tries to find the best way to divide the satellites into modules and assemble them, using parts from the catalog.
“Some of the test cases that I’ve used in the computer program are based on real missions that NASA has or is planning to launch in the near future, which is really interesting,” says Stojanovski.
Stojanovski, who was born in Croatia, came to America when he was three years of age. For the past several years he has lived in the small town of Carterville, Illinois.
In addition to his work in the Selva lab, Stojanovski has been an active member of Risley Theatre, having written and directed a musical there, called Three Lost, a dark comedy about the war in Croatia.