The Virginia CubeSat Constellation Mission; A Co-Development of Society and CubeSats

Hsiang, Conner, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Goyne, Chris, EN-Mech/Aero Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Elliott, Travis, EN-STS Dept, University of Virginia

The topic that links the STS research paper to the technical report is the focus on CubeSat technology. Since the CubeSat revolution in 1999, the use of this originally niche piece of technology has greatly grown within the scientific community and higher education, and has permeated into the commercial sector and lower education as well. From an engineering standpoint, the reasons behind the explosive growth of the CubeSat are attributed to its simplicity in design, low production and launch costs, and relatively quick development cycles when compared to more traditional types of satellites that have been launched over the past few decades. In this thesis, the research paper, instead, aims to examine the expansion of the CubeSat from an STS perspective to establish the idea that the success of the technology is also derived from societal factors, not just a result of its technological capabilities. Relatedly, the technical report documents the progress of UVA’s own CubeSat program on the Virginia CubeSat Constellation mission.
The central research question the STS research paper aims to address is the societal and economic impacts of the CubeSat revolution that has pushed humanity further along its progression through the Space Age. The STS framework, Co-production of Science and Social Order, is used to frame this analysis primarily through the framework’s first tenant, which depicts the co-creation of new scientific objects and the new societies around them. The concept of the CubeSat first arose from the desire of Professor Jordi Puig-Sari and Professor Bob Twiggs to provide graduate students the experience of designing, building, and launching satellites, after facing difficulties in a previous university mission. After a development period, the resultant CubeSat standard brought about the small satellite revolution, and the formation of new academic institutions around it. The success of the CubeSat standard in academia led to the creation of federal programs and initiatives that supported the efforts of these new space programs. After a decade of maturing, the potential of the CubeSat concept led to its eventual adoption by the commercial sector, which required the technology to develop in new directions. Resulting from the needs of the commercial sector, some noticeable changes were made to the CubeSat design, including the standardization of a wider variety of CubeSat sizes and its potential application in mega-constellations. From this narrative, the history of the CubeSat establishes a co-dependence between the development of the technology and the groups that utilize it.
The technical report discusses the status of the Virginia CubeSat Constellation (VCC) mission with a particular focus on the University of Virginia (UVA) built Libertas satellite. The VCC constellation is a collaborative project between the Virginia Space Grant Consortium and four of its member Universities: University of Virginia, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Old Dominion University, and Hampton University. The motivation behind the mission is to improve the accuracy of atmospheric density models, since current atmospheric models contain significant uncertainties that can result in less-than-ideal predictions for deorbiting satellites. Thus, the primary mission objectives are to (1) obtain orbital decay measurements on a constellation of satellites with the goal of developing a database of atmospheric drag and variability of atmospheric properties, and (2) provide a hands-on, student-led flight project experience for undergraduate students through the development, integration, testing, and launch of a constellation of satellites in low-Earth orbit. Despite not obtaining GPS data from Libertas during its operation, health data was received and analyzed in order to estimate a rotation period, rotation direction, and general attitude of the spacecraft. Although the team lost contact with Libertas due to a previously unknown design flaw with the radio, the health data indicated that the spacecraft was functioning as expected. Since one of the main objectives of the mission was to provide a hands-on, student-led flight project experience for undergraduate students, the team can conclude that the mission has been successful in fulfilling that objective. In order to achieve the first mission objective of obtaining measurements of the orbital decay to develop a database of atmospheric drag and variability of atmospheric properties, the team would need to receive GPS data from all the CubeSats in the VCC constellation, and analyze the actual orbital decay compared to computer predictions. Continuing into the future, the VCC team hopes that the lessons learned accumulated over the years past will be put to use in future CubeSat missions that UVA conducts.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
CubeSat, Virginia CubeSat Constellation, societal impact of CubeSats, academic impact of CubeSats

School of Engineering and Applied Science

Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering

Technical Advisor: Christopher P. Goyne

STS Advisor: S. Travis Elliott

Technical Team Members: Joe Brink, Cameron Greer, Conner Hsiang, Margaret Pollard, Connor Segal

Issued Date: