Space Station

Northrop Grumman's Antares rocket lifts off the launch pad at NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island on Wednesday. Among the cargo is the University of Virginia's first spacecraft, which will eventually study the effects of orbit on satellites.

The University of Virginia’s first spacecraft began its trip to the International Space Station on Wednesday afternoon.

The small cube, built under the direction of fourth-year student Erin Puckette, launched from Wallops Island aboard a Northrop Grumman rocket.

“It has been a long time coming,” Puckette said Monday.

The rocket’s cargo vehicle, which contains other CubeSats built by Old Dominion University, Virginia Tech and universities and high schools in other states, will rendezvous with the International Space Station. Later this summer, space station crew members plan to deploy the CubeSats of UVa, ODU and Virginia Tech into space as part of a “constellation” that will study the effects of orbit on satellites.

 “This is the first spacecraft the University of Virginia has developed, and the first one this class has created,” said Chris Goyne, a mechanical and engineering professor who has mentored students throughout the three-year effort. “It’s quite advanced work for fourth-years.”

NASA began the CubeSat Launch Initiative as part of an effort to help universities, high schools and nonprofits send small payload satellites — each typically 10-by-10-by-10 centimeters, with roughly the volume and weight of a quart of milk — to space. If an organization can prove a project will benefit NASA’s scientific and technological goals, NASA helps provide funding and resources.

The Virginia Space Grant Consortium began the collaborative project between UVa, ODU, Virginia Tech and Hampton University in 2016. The nano-satellites carry small sensors that will measure properties of the earth’s atmosphere. Overall, 140 students across the universities have worked on the project.

At UVa, students in Goyne’s engineering design capstone class began work on CubeSat in 2016. Each subsequent capstone class has added to the effort, and in the summer of 2018, Puckette and her teammates finalized the CubeSat’s building, testing, licensing and delivery to the company that will launch the satellite to the International Space Station.

Each aspect took many hours of research, phone calls and tinkering, she said. The team had to make sure the satellite would be able to withstand the launch and the extreme heat and cold of space. They had to make sure it was safe to transport on the International Space Station, and the satellite had to be licensed by the Federal Communication Commission to transmit radio frequencies back to UVa through a federal radio quiet zone. At one point, Puckette said she became so familiar with the licensing rules that she found herself explaining them to a NASA official.

“That’s something you don’t normally learn as an undergraduate,” she said. “It’s been an insane amount of experience.”

Puckette will graduate in May, but says she plans to check in when the space station launches the CubeSat group, possibly in June. Upon launch, the CubeSat will extend a radio antenna and, once it passes over Charlottesville, the team should have radio contact.

“A key milestone will be making sure we can establish contact,” Goyne said.

Upon each orbit, the satellite will transmit data back to UVa. Eventually, data will be analyzed with a tool under development by Hampton University.

UVa’s satellite, named Libertas, is intended to orbit for two years. As its orbit decays, it will eventually burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Researchers hope the data it collects will help inform scientists’ understanding of the lifespan of satellites and larger spacecraft as they try to predict and control how they return to Earth.

“These are things you don’t normally get an undergraduate course in,” Puckette said. “It’s been a labor of love.”

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Ruth Serven Smith is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7254, rserven@dailyprogress.com or @RuthServen on Twitter.

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