NASA Chooses UVA AE Students to Build Satellite

The missions keep getting higher, longer, farther and faster, as Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professor Christopher Goyne inspires his University of Virginia students to keep pushing the outer edges of the envelope.

Goyne teaches a spacecraft design course that has, during recent years, led to student-designed and -built projects reaching out to the edges of space.

The first, in spring of 2013, was a mission to test smartphone technology for high-altitude experiments, with a student-designed payload carried by a weather balloon to 64,000 feet above the Earth’s surface. The flight covered 62 miles and lasted a little over an hour.

Then last October, another UVA payload, designed and built to measure cosmic radiation in the stratosphere, went to 103,000 feet – 20 miles in altitude – aboard a NASA balloon. That was a 240-mile-long, 15-hour flight.

Now, Goyne’s class is beginning work on a softball-size satellite – called a CubeSat – that within a couple of years will be carried into space by a large NASA-funded rocket. That instrument, which will measure atmospheric properties for NASA and transmit data by radio, will orbit the Earth for two months or longer at 250 miles above the surface – the height of the International Space Station – before plunging back to Earth as a mini-fireball traveling at 17,000 mph.

“We have 18 months to get our spacecraft designed and built and delivered to NASA,” Goyne said. “Our students will be quite busy preparing for the mission.”

The satellite will be part of a three-satellite “constellation” that will most likely be launched from either the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia or the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The other two satellites are being designed and built – under UVA student leadership – by students at Old Dominion University and Virginia Tech. The project is funded by NASA through the Virginia Space Grant Consortium.