CMU Leads 'Satellite Swarm' Project To Test Satellite Capabilities

On today's program: A professor at Carnegie Mellon University explains a NASA mission he’s investigating that sent three small satellites into space; After more than 130 years in business, the owner of Carlisle’s Bridal shop is closing; and the author of “Smalltime” digs into the history of Johnstown alongside his family roots.

Carnegie Mellon assistant professor is investigating small satellite technology for NASA

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An assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute helped launch a NASA mission Sunday, called V-R3x. Zac Manchester, who is also the mission’s principal investigator, says this mission will test communication and navigation for small satellites. He spoke with both The Confluence and WESA’s Sydney Roach.

“The kind of big picture is that this is a stepping stone towards doing more advanced, like swarming and formation flying kind of stuff on really small satellites,” Manchester says.

He says there are many applications for satellite swarm technology. Satellite swarms can effectively image the Earth, track wildlife with miniature tags from space, and potentially improve future efforts to explore space. One of the main advantages swarms have over individual satellites is their shared intelligence.

By communicating together, Manchester says, they can fly as a unit with a single command. They can also comb through images for useful information to send down to Earth instead of sending massive amounts of photos that could be useless.

“Instead of just blindly downloading all the images, they only send down the useful stuff. They've already pre analyzed it on board.” 

Another major benefit of satellite swarms is their reliability. One large and expensive satellite in space could get broken or lost, leaving us without the data it collected. If one satellite in a swarm becomes unusable, there are other potential ones to pull data from. This is also an economic benefit since the smaller satellites are cheaper to produce

There are only three satellites in this mission, but Manchester says they have already verified that the satellites are able to communicate. The satellites tweet updates from space @V-R3x.


This project was conceived and executed in about a year, meaning the team had to deal with the pandemic while creating the equipment. 

Max Holliday, a CMU graduate student, did the prototyping from home. 

“While that’s kind of OK over Zoom for some things, it’s not great for trying to build spacecraft hardware,” says Manchester. 

The team eventually was allowed to use NASA clean rooms to test their products.

Carlisle’s Bridal shop is closing

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Carlisle’s Bridal of Pittsburgh made it through the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, two world wars, the Great Depression, other recessions. But after COVID-19 and production disruptions, the century-old business, believed to be the oldest bridal shop in the nation, is closing its doors next month.

Jan Winner is a fifth-generation owner operator of Carlisle’s. She says this hard decision is the result of the overall pandemic: safety protocols have been too limiting, and there have been fewer events like weddings and proms to bring in shoppers.

“Weddings have been postponed, most of them now are even postponed until 2o22 just because people don’t even know in ‘21 if they’ll be able to have a wedding,” says Winner. 

She says despite the limitations, the shop only had to give one refund to a family that postponed their wedding. 

Back in May, Winner told The Confluence her great-grandmother pawned jewelry and china to keep the shop open during the Great Depression. In this pandemic, Winner tried to negotiate with her landlord for reduced rent, but they instead offered to move her into a smaller space. 

“I really can’t do [that], I need every bit of what I have,” says Winner. 

She says she’s become friends with brides, as they often spend a year together between finding the perfect dress and walking down the aisle. Some families even come in more than once. 

“Just this last weekend, we had the mother, her mother, and we sold [to] the granddaughter, so we’re on third generation brides.” 

Even as the shop is preparing to close, Winner says they are busy selling dresses, even to those without wedding dates, who want to be a Carlisle bride. 

Historian Russell Shorto revisited his hometown and family for his new book
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Johnstown is the setting for a new nonfiction book titled “Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob.” 

90.5 WESA’s Bill O’Driscoll spoke with author Russell Shorto about his book in Johnstown’s Central Park.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories