Small satellites becoming big deal for CU-Boulder students

For some University of Colorado Boulder undergraduates, designing, building and flying small satellites is becoming a large part of their hands-on education.

NASA recently selected CU-Boulder as one of 24 institutions or organizations to fly tiny satellites as auxiliary payloads aboard rockets planned for launch in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The selections are part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, an effort that began in 2010 and involves students at institutions like CU-Boulder developing and flying CubeSat satellites, which are about the size of a loaf of bread, have a volume of about a quart and generally weigh less than 3 pounds.

From 2010 to 2013 CU-Boulder was awarded five launch opportunities for CubeSats by NASA, the most of any university in the nation. Each launch is worth the equivalent of roughly $300,000, the going rate for commercial space payloads of that size and weight, said aerospace engineering Professor Scott Palo, whose team was selected by NASA in 2013 to design and build a flight-ready CubeSat satellite.

The CU CubeSat, known as the High Latitude Ionospheric Thermospheric Experiment, or HiLITE, is a collaboration between the aerospace department and two small Boulder-based companies, Blue Canyon Technologies and ASTRA, which are supported in part by the U.S. Air Force to help develop CubeSat hardware, said Palo. 

HiLITE will be designed and built using aspects of the design and architecture of an existing small satellite known as CubeSat for Atmospheric Studies in Orbit and Re-entry, or CASTOR. The CubeSat was developed as a senior design project in 2011-12 by eight students in CU’s College of Engineering and Applied Science.

John Stark, CASTOR team member and a Denver native who plans to stay on campus for his master’s and doctoral degrees in engineering, said he felt fortunate to work with a high-caliber research group. “I can’t imagine getting a better education anywhere else -- the faculty here are dedicated to seeing that the students succeed,” he said. “Ideally I’d like to keep working with small satellites -- they are going to be a game changer for the industry in the coming years.”

Read the full news release here.