Partnering with NASA, Prof. Chris Goyne and UVA students lead a four-university consortium of multidisciplinary undergraduates on a joint mission to build a group of satellites, called a “constellation.” The satellites will conduct tests to better understand atmospheric density, which will help NASA better measure the rates at which low-orbiting spacecraft slow down and ultimately descend back to Earth. Each satellite will also test ground-to spacecraft communication, and the constellation will test craft-to-craft communication.

Dr. Goyne and his AE and ME students are currently building their own “mission control” station for tracking their spacecraft that will be launched into orbit in late 2018 aboard a NASA-sponsored rocket as part of an International Space Station resupply mission. “Our students will have direct control of our spacecraft, gaining valuable firsthand experience in spacecraft operations,” Goyne said. “They also will have control over the data received from the spacecraft and will handle its distribution and dissemination. It’s a great learning experience that will prepare them for careers in the aerospace industry and with government.”

The results of the satellite project will also have a broader impact on next-generation space technology. Understanding atmospheric properties will provide more accurate predictions about fuel consumption during orbit and better calculations regarding re-entry so that spacecraft can more safely return from space. Constellation communication studies will provide information for future space missions where multiple spacecraft are engaged, such as in space-based internet services or planned scientific missions involving swarms of small satellites.