The University of Virginia’s first spacecraft launched into orbit this month.
The Virginia CubeSat Constellation mission is a collaboration between the Virginia Space Grant Consortium and Old Dominion University, Virginia Tech, Hampton University and UVa.
The group built three satellites — each about 4 inches on every side and weighing about 3 pounds — and tasked them to obtain measurements of atmospheric properties and orbital decay.
Data collected will ultimately contribute to the scientific knowledge base around orbital decay and will be widely shared, according to the group.
UVa’s spacecraft traveled from Wallops Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore to the International Space Station in April. Now that the satellites have been launched from the ISS into space, ground stations at UVa, ODU and Virginia Tech will work on contacting their satellites, and students at Hampton will begin analyzing the data collected.
The project marks the first time UVa has created a spacecraft, in an effort organized by students in engineering classes.
“To know that all three satellites are now in orbit is extremely gratifying,” Mary Sandy, director of the Virginia Space Grant, said in a news release. “Kudos to the students who have worked hard and gained immeasurable knowledge and experience from participating in this student-led mission and to the faculty who have advised them.”
The ODU satellite, which has a drag brake to intentionally cause orbital decay, is expected to remain in orbit for up to four months, according to the organization. The other two satellites should orbit for up to two years at an altitude of 250 miles before burning up when they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.
Chris Goyne, an engineering professor at UVa who mentored that school’s student team, said UVa has not yet made radio contact with its satellite. The team is waiting on orbital information from the U.S. Air Force so students can know exactly where to point their radio antenna and catch a signal.
The project is part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, which provides opportunities for small satellite payloads built by universities, high schools and nonprofit organizations to fly on upcoming launches. It is funded by the NASA Undergraduate Student Instrument Program and the Virginia Space Grant Consortium. The Undergraduate Student Instrument Program is managed by NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore.