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VIDEO: First-Ever ODU Student-Built Satellite Headed to International Space Station

By Keith Pierce

Against a clear blue sky, the first-ever CubeSat (small satellite) created by Old Dominion University students blasted off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Va. aboard a Northrop Grumman rocket headed to the International Space Station (ISS).

"This is the culmination of three years of work by more than one hundred and forty students across four universities," said Mary Sandy, director of the Virginia Space Grant Consortium (VSGC). "The opportunity to design, build and launch satellites to space has been a tremendous learning experience for the students and faculty involved and has helped to build spaceflight capabilities at the participating universities."

The Virginia CubeSat Constellation is a collaborative project of the Virginia Space Grant Consortium and four of its member universities: ODU, Virginia Tech, University of Virginia, and Hampton University. The Cygnus, which is Northrop Grumman's resupply vehicle for the ISS, will deliver the satellites to the ISS for nearly simultaneous deployment by onboard astronauts so they can orbit together and function as a constellation.

The satellite development teams at each of the three universities have been led by female engineering students, including ODU's Kimberly Wright, a graduate student in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who, thanks in part to her work on the CubeSat project, will start a new job as a flight controller for mission control for NASA in Houston.

"Seeing the launch was so amazing," said Wright. "Not only was it my first rocket launch viewing, but I was also thrilled to be a part of a team that even got a little shout out during the mission brief. It was pretty cool to know that we were one of the science payloads."

The 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.

"Once the satellites are delivered to the space station and placed into orbit by the astronauts, we will start to get data down from the satellites and that data will deal with atmospheric drag and atmospheric conditions and their impact on orbital decay. This will be helpful for mission planning in the future," said Sandy.

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 students from Hampton University's Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences Department.

Like Wright, electrical engineering master's student, Westin Messer, began working on the CubeSat project as an undergraduate student in 2016.

"All of our hard work has finally paid off. To have VIP access at my first-ever launch was just amazing," said Messer. "We were surrounded by some of the smartest people in the aerospace industry. Getting to rub shoulders with some top people at NASA and Northrop Grumman was really great. It was just a very exciting day."

Also aboard the Antares Rocket were dozens of ThinSats, miniature satellites shaped like a slice of bread, including a ThinSat designed and built by an ODU senior design group led by Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering graduate student, Arthur Wiedemann. As part of the Batten College of Engineering and Technology's outreach efforts, a ThinSat built by Norfolk's Norview High School, as well as standard payloads attributed to Larchmont Elementary and Lindenwood Elementary schools, were also on the launch.

"This is the sixth time I've come to observe a launch here and there were only three successes. The others were scrubbed," said Robert Ash, the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering professor and eminent scholar who helped start the ODU space program. "Between the CubeSat and the ThinSats, it was quite an exciting launch day for ODU."

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. 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 Virginia's Eastern Shore.

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