UVA Student-built Spacecraft Launches from NASA Wallops to the International Space Station

Mechanical, aerospace and electrical engineering students’ research can inform advances in future space flight

Charlottesville, Va., April 10, 2019 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- A team of students and faculty from the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science is contributing to a growing knowledge base about orbiting spacecraft. 

UVA Engineering students developed a small satellite that will join other satellites, created by Virginia Tech and Old Dominion University, as part of the Virginia CubeSat Constellation, a Virginia Space Grant Consortium project.  The satellites will launch next Wednesday from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Virginia’s Eastern Shore on the Northrop Grumman Antares launch vehicle. The CubeSats are designed to take measurements that will help researchers across the country better understand the effects of atmospheric drag on spacecraft and debris that orbit Earth. UVA students have named their satellite Libertas for the goddess of liberty that is found on the back of the Virginia State seal.

Once the satellites are delivered to the International Space Station, astronauts will place them into orbit nearly simultaneously so they can operate together as a constellation.

Over the course of this three-year mission, UVA students will work alongside mentor Chris Goyne, mechanical and aerospace engineering professor as well as director of UVA’s Aerospace Research Lab, to track the craft by radio as it passes from horizon to horizon on each orbit.

“Our students are walking in the footsteps, in essence, of famous NASA programs like the Apollo missions,” says Goyne. “It’s a special experience for them to design, build, test and ultimately fly a craft that goes into space. This will be the first spacecraft developed by UVA and it will have been done almost completely by our talented students.”

Students from Hampton University have developed a tool to help analyze the data from this mission.  UVA students will gather and analyze data from a ground control station that they built in collaboration with local amateur radio enthusiasts. Ground stations at Virginia Tech and ODU will also track and receive data from the orbiting satellites.

Each of the four universities have joined together under the umbrella of the Virginia Space Grant Consortium, which receives financial support from NASA and the Commonwealth of Virginia. The teams have greatly benefited from continual guidance and in-kind contributions from not only NASA, but also industry leaders, academic advisors, and staff at Nanoracks, the internationally renowned company charged with supporting student missions aboard the International Space Station.

The multi-university student team, as well as the UVA team, is led by Erin Puckette, a fourth-year aerospace engineering major at UVA.

“It will be so exciting to actually watch the satellite being launched into space. After all the work on the ground, it gives you an idea of how transformative this effort really is,” said Puckette.

In her role as mission manager, Puckette assumed a variety of tasks to bring the project to fruition, from learning electrical engineering and managing the FCC licensing to trouble-shooting technical issues and collaborating with NASA, Nanoracks, and other university teams.

As a result of her team’s efforts, this satellite project can contribute to the next generation of space technology. With a better understanding of the atmospheric properties of Earth, researchers will be able to more accurately predict the fuel consumption levels of spacecraft when they orbit—and can offer the calculations needed to ensure that they safely return from space. Associated space-to-ground communication studies will also help students gain experience for future space missions where data is transmitted to a ground receiver, such as in space-based internet services or scientific missions that involve remote sensing.

As the launch approaches, visit here for more information and follow both UVA as well as Virginia Space Grant Consortium’s social media channels. NASA will also post live video of the launch here.


About UVA Engineering: As part of the top-ranked, comprehensive University of Virginia, UVA Engineering is one of the nation’s oldest and most respected engineering schools. Our mission is to make the world a better place by creating and disseminating knowledge and by preparing future engineering leaders. Outstanding students and faculty from around the world choose UVA Engineering because of our growing and internationally recognized education and research programs. UVA is the No. 1 public engineering school in the country for the percentage of women graduates, among schools with at least 75 degree earners; the No. 1 public engineering school in the United States for the four-year graduation rate of undergraduates students; and the top engineering school in the country for the rate of Ph.D. enrollment growth. Learn more at engineering.virginia.edu.