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Satellite Built By VT Undergraduate Students Launched Into Space
April 18, 2019

In a giant leap for Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), the first satellite built by undergraduate students was launched into space yesterday.

(From left) Madison Brodnax , senior majoring in computer engineering, and Nick Angle, junior majoring in physics, conduct a final inspection of the Ceres satellite prior to integration at NanoRacks. The university-built satellites have been named after the Roman goddesses on the back of the Virginia State Seal. Virginia Tech selected Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. Photo courtesy of ODU Batten College of Engineering and Technology.

As part of the Virginia CubeSat Constellation (VCC) mission, a group of Virginia Tech undergraduate students recently delivered their small satellite to Houston to be incorporated into NanoRacks’ commercially developed CubeSat deployer. Virginia Tech’s satellite, along with two satellites from other Virginia universities — The University of Virginia (UVA), Old Dominion University (ODU), and Hampton University (HU) — was included on the payload section of Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket and then will be headed to the International Space Station.

Over the last several years, an interdisciplinary team of 50 undergraduate students from the College of Engineering and the College of Science developed Virginia Tech’s CubeSat at the Center for Space Science and Engineering Research, known as (Space@VT). The project has provided students from aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, computer science, and physics with crucial hands-on mission experience in both spacecraft design and manufacturing, all working together to make the mission a reality.

The initiative began in June 2016 as part of the Virginia CubeSat Constellation, a collaborative effort between the Virginia Space Grant Consortium and four of its member universities: Virginia Tech, Old Dominion University, University of Virginia, and Hampton University. The project’s mission is to obtain measurements of the properties of the Earth’s atmosphere in low earth orbit. As the orbits of the satellites decay due to atmospheric drag, the satellite instruments will quantify atmospheric density.

Cube shaped nano-satellites, commonly known as CubeSats, are each about 4 inches long and weigh approximately 3 pounds. Small in size, they are packed with a motherboard, a global positioning system unit, radio, solar panels, and a power system.

One unique feature on Virginia Tech’s CubeSat was a side panel created out of a 3D printed material. The team incorporated temperature gauges into the satellite to test how the material will hold up in space.

“Designing and manufacturing instrumentation for operation in space is extremely challenging,” noted Kevin Shinpaugh, a professor in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering and director of information technology and computing services for the Biocomplexity Institute and the team’s faculty advisor. “It requires a lot of precision and you need to be particularly careful with construction and electronic wiring. If there is an issue once the satellite is deployed, you can’t go up there to make a quick fix.”

Prof. Shinpaugh explained that the students, working on sub-teams that included structures, software, thermal, and power, completed rigorous testing and careful debugging prior to delivery of the CubeSat to Houston. The satellite was launched from the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island.

All three of the university-built CubeSats will be deployed simultaneously into orbit by astronauts aboard the International Space Station, where they will function as a constellation. Old Dominion University’s satellite, which has a drag brake to intentionally cause orbital decay, is expected to remain in orbit for up to four months. The satellites from Virginia Tech and University of Virginia should orbit for up to two years. Several days after they are deployed into orbit, the satellites will begin communicating data to ground stations at Virginia Tech, University of Virginia, and Old Dominion University for analysis, using an analytical tool that is being developed by the Hampton University students.

Using the orbital decay measurements and data, researchers will have a better, more accurate modeling of atmospheric conditions in low orbit and be able to increase usage of satellites in that layer. At Space@VT, the data will provide additional opportunities for students to gain experience in networking, cloud computing, and network storage.

Over the course of the project, the team has been coached by NASA, faculty in the aerospace and ocean engineering department, Space@VT, the Hume Center for National Security and Technology, and industry advisors.

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