The low cost and increasing utility of CubeSats present the opportunity to conduct student-based missions that can address many of society’s technical and scientific needs. This includes furthering our understanding of Earth and space science, as well as developing new space technology that will enhance our space exploration capabilities.
The Virginia CubeSat Constellation mission is a collaborative project of the Virginia Space Grant Consortium and four of its member universities: Old Dominion University (ODU), Virginia Tech (VT), University of Virginia (UVA), and Hampton University (HU). Three nano-satellites, each about 4 inches cubed and weighing approximately 3 pounds, have been developed and instrumented (one each at ODU, VT and UVA) to obtain measurements of the properties of the Earth’s atmosphere. As the orbits of the satellites decay due to atmospheric drag, satellite instruments will quantify atmospheric density.
The three CubeSats will be deployed via the NRCSD by astronauts aboard the International Space Station into orbit near-simultaneously so they can orbit together and function as a constellation. The ODU satellite, which has a drag brake to intentionally cause orbital decay, is expected to remain in orbit for up to four months. 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. The satellites will communicate data to ground stations at Virginia Tech, University of Virginia and Old Dominion University for subsequent analysis using an analytical tool being developed by Hampton University students from the Atmospheric and Planetary Science Department.
The students have named their satellites after the Roman goddesses on the back of the Virginia State Seal who represent the blessings of freedom and peace. UVA has chosen Libertas, the goddess of individual liberties; Virginia Tech selected Ceres, the goddess of agriculture; and Old Dominion University chose Aeternitas, the goddess representing eternity.
More than 140 undergraduate students have been hard at work on the mission since June 2016 as a cross-institutional team. Undergraduate student leaders and team members from physics, electrical engineering, aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering and chemical engineering disciplines have worked together to make the mission a reality. The handover brings the team in sight of seeing their satellites readied for launch. The students have been coached by faculty advisors and have benefitted greatly from advice from NASA, industry and academic advisors. Students have also received excellent guidance from NanoRacks, the world’s leading commercial space station company.
Funded by NASA’s Undergraduate Student Instrument Program and the Virginia Space Grant Consortium, and managed for NASA by NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, the project is part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, which provides opportunities for small satellite payloads built by universities, high schools and non-profit organizations to fly on upcoming launches.
The Virginia CubeSat Constellation (VCC) mission is a joint collaboration of science and engineering students from Hampton University (HU), Old Dominion University (ODU), University of Virginia (UVA), and Virginia Tech (VT), sponsored by the Virginia Space Grant Consortium (VSGC) and NASA. The mission involves the construction and completion of three 1U CubeSats, all independently designed, tested, and validated by the universities’ students. The three satellites are named after the Roman goddesses found on the reverse side of the Virginia State Seal: Aeternitas (ODU), Libertas (UVA), and Ceres (VT).
All three CubeSats will be deployed from the International Space Station and orbit the Earth in Low Earth Orbit, passing over Virginia at least every two days. There are three ground stations supporting the VCC mission at the respective universities building the CubeSats. Mission operations will be continuously monitored during the mission lifetime, which may exceed two years.
● Provide a hands-on, student-led flight project experience for undergraduate students by designing, developing, integrating, testing and flying an orbital constellation of three 1U CubeSats
● Obtain measurements of the orbital decay of a constellation of satellites to develop a database of atmospheric drag and the variability of atmospheric properties
● Develop teams of students from Old Dominion University, Virginia Tech, University of Virginia and Hampton University to work effectively under the umbrella of the Virginia Space Grant Consortium (VSGC)
● Test Ultem 9085 as a CubeSat structural material
The UVA CubeSat team designed a custom structural element for housing the satellite’s passive magnetic attitude control system. This design has also been adopted for use in VT’s satellite. UVA is lead for technical mission management.
Aeternitas, ODU’s CubeSat, has a custom chassis to accommodate an integrated deployable drag brake, as a proof-of-concept to assist in documenting orbital decay.
The 1U chassis used will be made of a 3D printed material donated by Orbital ATK. The material is similar to the commercially available material ULTEM 9085.
The team at Hampton University developed custom code package to analyze the data that will be collected from the constellation while in orbit.
The Virginia Space Grant Consortium has the administrative lead for the mission and is providing substantial funding.