One giant leap: 50 years after moon landing, UVA students build their own spacecraft

Two of the three CubeSats released into space in early July will orbit around the Earth for the next one to two years. (Photo courtesy of NASA) Two of the three CubeSats released into space in early July will orbit around the Earth for the next one to two years. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

July 20, 1969. It’s one of the most significant dates in human history, and the groundbreaking event occurred almost 240,000 miles away from our home planet.

American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to ever set foot on the moon that day, marking the culmination of an eight-year mission to complete a lunar landing set forth by U.S. President John F. Kennedy in the first year of his term. It was a landmark event that paved the way for the development of modern space exploration technology.

Now 50 years later, even college students are building their own spacecraft to be launched into orbit. UVA is one of three Virginia universities that will be monitoring student-built nano-satellites, called CubeSats, released into space in early July by astronauts at the International Space Station.

The first-ever spacecraft developed by the university was launched last April at the NASA flight facility at Wallops Island, Virginia. A four-inch-by-four-inch cube weighing about three pounds, UVA’s CubeSat is collecting data on orbital decay and the Earth’s outer atmosphere, to be used by NASA for future missions.

“We put three CubeSats in orbit and we’re monitoring, basically, the atmospheric drag on those CubeSats and seeing how quickly their orbit gets degraded from the natural drag from the air that’s up there,” says UVA engineering professor Chris Goyne, who’s overseeing the project. “That slows it down and eventually they’ll burn up in the atmosphere.”

The NASA-sponsored CubeSat Launch Initiative has facilitated 85 missions for students and nonprofit organizations since its inception in 2010. The satellites are relatively cheap to build (by rocket science standards) and can hitch free rides on larger-scale NASA missions to the space station. UVA receives funding for the project from both the NASA Undergraduate Student Instrument Program and Virginia Space Grant Consortium.

Libertas, the name given to UVA’s CubeSat, will orbit the Earth for the next year or two at about 250 miles above the planet’s surface.

Over the course of three years, undergraduate students built the miniature satellite as part of a capstone course in spacecraft design, with each year’s students completing different phases along the way. UVA, Old Dominion University, and Virginia Tech constructed one CubeSat each with assistance from the Virginia Space Grant Consortium and Hampton University.

“One of the objectives of this mission was to give students hands-on project experience but also give the university experience in how to conduct these missions and how to create an environment in which the students can innovate and design and operate and then try to replicate with progressively more complicated experiments,” Goyne says.

Although Libertas was released from the International Space Station on July 3, Goyne and his students are still awaiting the orbital parameters of the CubeSat from the U.S. Air Force. Once the group, which expects to obtain the information in the next week, determines when Libertas will fly over Charlottesville, it’ll adjust its antenna and establish radio communications.

Two rising fourth-year students were selected to lead the 2019-20 class in its data collection efforts over the next two semesters. Aerospace engineering majors Connor Segal and Hannah Umansky have stayed in Charlottesville this summer as interns to help Goyne monitor the project’s progress. They’ll be the most hands-on for both tracking Libertas and developing the university’s next spacecraft, which is expected to launch in the winter of 2021.

Don’t go calling them Armstrong and Aldrin just yet, but Segal and Umansky credit the two moonwalking astronauts and the team that got them there with generating enthusiasm for space exploration that’s extended across generations and influenced their interest in the industry.

“The whole space race exploded this sort of field, which I think is worthwhile,” and it brought a lot of interest to the field that helped further develop it, Segal says.

The moon landing set a precedent of ambition and innovation for astronauts and engineers that over the last 50 years has served as a symbol of humanity’s capabilities. With commercial moon voyages on the horizon and NASA hoping to plan a human-led trip to Mars, there’s no telling what we can achieve given another 50.

Goyne notes that the students involved in this program were born after the moon landing. “The Apollo mission is really in the history books for them,” he says. “But a lot of the technology, the concepts, and the ability to overcome technical challenges is a really good motivator.”

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