Undergraduate aerospace engineering team launches satellite

Satellite created by capstone design course students awaits deployment from the International Space Station with plans to measure the effect of atmospheric drag on spacecraft

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The CubeSat will measure atmospheric drag as it orbits the Earth. 

Maddy Sita and Morgan Hale | Cavalier Daily

As the moon landing’s 50th anniversary approaches, an aerospace engineering team at the University has made their own history. Not only has the team developed the University’s first spacecraft, the feat was accomplished by undergraduate students. Three years of engineering collaboration between the University, Old Dominion University, Hampton University and Virginia Tech culminated in the launch of three CubeSats — or miniaturized satellites used for space research — to the International Space Station via the Antares Rocket. The resupply mission was launched April 17 from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility located on Virginia’s coast.

The goal of the project, which was granted about $60,000 by the Virginia Space Grant Consortium and NASA, is focused on predicting and relieving atmospheric drag for future spacecrafts. To do this, the University, Old Dominion and Virginia Tech each engineered a 64-cubic-inch satellite, which will fly in a constellation together to measure atmospheric drag. Though Hampton University did not develop their own CubeSat, the team contributed by analyzing science data on orbital circulations. According to Chris Goyne, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, resistance from the air and surroundings can slow down spacecraft to the point where it burns up when re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. This research will allow for fuel consumption predictions and calculations to ensure safe returns to Earth.

“The idea is to take measurements of the atmospheric drag that the [CubeSats] will experience as they're orbiting the earth and try to use that information to predict how other spacecraft will be affected by the earth's atmosphere,” Goyne said.

Accompanying the CubeSats on the Antares Rocket were scientific instruments and experiments for the astronauts, as well as food. After the 36-hour journey, the CubeSats now await deployment until mid-July, at which point they will be sent out through an airlock on the space station to begin data collection. This data collection will last for approximately one year before the CubeSats burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Fourth-year aerospace Engineering student Erin Puckette is the student lead for the entire project, managing all 30-some students across all of the universities. Puckette ensured that the institutions were communicating and moving in the right direction and  mitigated issues that arose throughout the engineering process.

"The project had a lot of highs, and it had a lot of lows,” Puckette said. “Some of the exciting parts were seeing when we'd recover from the lows, when we'd be thrown something that [made us think], ‘There's no way that we're going to recover from this, this is going to take the mission out, this isn't going to space, everybody should just call it quits,’ but then we'd find a work-around, or there'd be a breakthrough.”

Challenges faced by the engineering team included incompatible components, or parts susceptible to damage, as well as legal and safety requirements. One such legal requirement arose due to the presence of a radio onboard the CubeSat, which required a Federal Communications Commission license in order to transmit collected data. This component required communication with the federal government, making it difficult to get a license in time for launch.

“The legal and safety compliance perspectives were challenges that I think the students had not encountered before in the types of designs that they may have done,” Goyne said. “There were a lot of practicalities to operating the spacecraft on the space station."

After completing the satellites, Puckette flew with the CubeSats down to the NanoRacks integration facility in Houston, Texas. At the facility, the satellites were placed into the deployer, packaged up further and loaded and shipped back to Virginia for launching.

On the day of launch, Puckette, Goyne and the rest of the teams reconvened near Chincoteague, Va., to watch the take-off. 

"That was sort of my big goodbye to them when I saw them screwed into their final canister,” Puckette said. “It was weird to think that something that I had built was on a rocket headed to space. As an aerospace engineer, it's sort of what you dream of to get to see it, and you get to feel it too because of the shock waves.”

In order to reach the ISS, the resupply spacecraft separated from Antares after launch. Once docked, astronauts opened up a hatch to the spaceship, bringing bags and cargo back onto the space station, including the CubeSats. 

At this point, the next step for the engineering team is to establish radio communication with the CubeSat once it flies over Charlottesville in July after deployment. During this fly-over, an antenna located on the roof of the Mechanical Engineering Building will be pointed towards the satellite, allowing the team to listen to data transmitted from the CubeSat.

“We've had a lot of success to date with the mission because we've been able to expose our students to a practical spacecraft design, build and flight mission, but we're looking forward to a milestone of establishing radio communications with the spacecraft,” Goyne said.

According to Goyne and Puckette, a main aspect that makes this project so unique is the opportunity it provides for undergraduate students to get such invaluable experience within the field of aerospace engineering.

“Unlike a lot of CubeSat programs around the U.S. and around the world, we had our undergraduate students actually designing the CubeSat, building it and testing it,” Goyne said. “The success we've had to date on this mission is a testament to the tenacity and the abilities of our undergraduate students.”

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