Student-built satellite project funded by NASA and UVA will go aloft next year

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Members of last year’s Spacecraft Design Team at UVA prepare their JefferSat for high altitude balloon flight. Photo: UVA Media Relations Members of last year’s Spacecraft Design Team at UVA prepare their JefferSat for high altitude balloon flight. Photo: UVA Media Relations

In 10 months, a massive helium balloon will drift upward from the New Mexico desert to the edge of space, expanding to the size of a football field before it reaches a stopping point 23 miles above Earth. On a platform attached to it will be a tiny sub-orbital satellite, the result of nearly a year’s worth of work by UVA’s Spacecraft Design Team.

The fourth-years on the team are members of a design-build course, now in its third year, taught by Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Chris Goyne. They’re one of just 10 teams nationwide to land a $50,000 grant from NASA—matched by $25,250 from the University—to fund the design and construction of a cosmic radiation monitor they’ve nicknamed JefferSat.

The data gathered by the satellite, a so-called “cubesat” with the approximate dimensions of a small shoebox, is of particular interest to NASA, Goyne explained. Atmospheric radiation poses a danger to astronauts and even airline pilots, but scientists haven’t worked out a good way to anticipate where it concentrates.

“To do that, we need to measure the levels of cosmic rays in the atmosphere and compare those with predictions,” Goyne said.

But for his students, the project is a lot more than that—it’s a chance to work with NASA, the pros they aspire to be one day.

The team’s project manager, Bryan Dale, is an aerospace engineering and physics double major and Air Force ROTC member who hopes to get to space himself. Getting JefferSat aloft is a great experience, he said, and a lesson in how far technology has come.

“One of the goals of our project is to show that we can use off-the-shelf items to build a satellite that can go up this high,” he said. That doesn’t mean you can stroll into a hardware store and buy what you need. Specialized online retailers offer modular aluminum structures suitable for the stratosphere, but they don’t come cheap; a three-unit cubesat will set you back about $6,000, Dale said.

The team’s choice of onboard computer, though, is relatively inexpensive and easy to acquire: a Samsung Galaxy smartphone. “It will be like the brains in our computer—the hub through which all our data flows,” said Dale.

Last year’s engineering class helped pave the way for them, building and flying an earlier cell phone-powered version of Jeffer-Sat pulled aloft by a weather balloon. Students had loaded up the phone with custom-built apps to measure things like altitude and pressure, and tracked their satellite as it rose to 65,000 feet before landing in Farmville.

This year’s team has new challenges. They need to add radiation sensors, they have to ensure their phone doesn’t literally freeze in near space, and they have to stay within rigid mass guidelines. And there’s no asking for an extension from NASA.

In the past, the class has operated in an academic environment that, while rigorous, was a little more forgiving. “If you didn’t quite make your deadline, it’s no big deal,” Dale said. “If we miss deadlines now, they may say we can’t launch.”

But NASA engineers—including scientists from the agency’s Wallops Island facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore—are with them every step of the way, Dale said, and the need for him and his classmates to work together in coordinated teams and hit targets means they’re gaining priceless real-world skills.

“It’s very similar to what the professional environment is like,” he said.

Keep up with the engineering team as the students work on the cubesat by following them on Twitter—@JefferSatUVA.

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