CU-Boulder-built MinXSS cube satellite to study solar flares, X-rays emitted by the sun

December 2, 2015 •

A NASA-funded miniature satellite built by University of Colorado Boulder students will launch at 5:55 p.m. EST on Thursday from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the start of a six-month-long mission to study solar flares and the powerful X-rays emitted by the sun.

The Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer (MinXSS) CubeSat, which was built by students in CU-Boulder’s Department of Aerospace Engineering (AES) in collaboration with researchers at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), will help shed light on how powerful electromagnetic emissions from the sun impact the Earth’s atmosphere, an effect known as space weather.

“Understanding space weather is important because of the large number of navigation and communications systems that can be impacted,” said Tom Woods, associate director of LASP and principal investigator of MinXSS. “For example, communication disruptions by a space weather event can force airlines to change routes around Earth’s poles and impact GPS navigation used for myriad applications such as underwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and precision planting of seeds by specialized tractors.”

CubeSats are low-cost, short lifespan satellites built to take specific scientific observations and measurements. The MinXSS measures approximately 4 inches wide by 4 inches long by 12 inches high—about the size of a loaf of bread—and features cost-saving components such as an extendable tape measure that will serve as a radio antenna.

The MinXSS will be carried to the International Space Station (ISS) via a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket. In November, the Centennial, Colorado-based ULA announced that CU-Boulder will receive a free CubeSat ride to space in 2017 as part of the aerospace company’s new initiative to make CubeSat launches more affordable and accessible to academic institutions nationwide.

Once delivered to the ISS, the MinXSS CubeSat will be deployed into space in January 2016 and operate for up to 12 months. CubeSat deployments from the ISS via a specially designed CubeSat deployer are made possible through a Space Act Agreement between NASA and NanoRacks LLC.

The MinXSS mission continues a successful tradition of CU-Boulder students designing and flying CubeSat missions, including the Colorado Student Space Weather Experiment, which launched in September 2012.

“CU-Boulder is recognized as a leader in CubeSat development,” said James Mason, a graduate researcher at LASP and a co-investigator on the MinXSS project. “The mass, volume, power, schedule and cost constraints of CubeSats have pushed us to develop new techniques, new technologies, and a new mentality for working on satellites.”

Over 40 students have worked on the MinXSS, including Colden Rouleau, a first-year PhD student in the Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at CU-Boulder.

“CU-Boulder has given me the opportunity to make significant contributions on flight-ready projects immediately,” Rouleau said. “I’m getting the hands-on experience I need to be successful going forward.”

“In addition to educating the next-generation workforce of scientists and engineers, the MinXSS project exemplifies the mission of CU’s AeroSpace Ventures,” said Scott Palo, a professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at CU-Boulder. “AeroSpace Ventures is a collaboration among aerospace-related departments, institutes, centers and their industry partners to create knowledge and develop new technologies specifically focusing on unmanned and autonomous aircraft, small satellites and Earth and space sensors.”

CU-Boulder’s AeroSpace Ventures partners with industry to accelerate discoveries in Earth and space science, broadly educate tomorrow’s highly skilled workforce, develop technologies that create new commercial opportunities and create collaborations that help industry grow. Founding corporate partners include Ball Aerospace, Blue Canyon Technologies, Braxton Technologies, Lockheed Martin, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Surrey Satellite Technology U.S.

To keep itself orientated toward the Sun correctly, the MinXSS will incorporate an XACT attitude determination and control system built by Blue Canyon Technologies, a Boulder, Colorado-based aerospace company founded by CU-Boulder graduate George Stafford.

“The collaboration between BCT and CU-Boulder is great for both sides,” said Matt Carton, an engineer at Blue Canyon Technologies and a CU-Boulder graduate. “It has been a dream come true to continue to work with my old colleagues, through BCT, on MinXSS and the design of future CubeSats.”  

The MinXSS will be the first CubeSat to use the full XACT system and there are approximately 10 other CubeSats planning to launch in 2016 with an XACT onboard, said Carton.

Tom Woods, 303-492-4224
James Mason, 303-735-5472
Scott Palo, 303-492-4289
Trent Knoss, CU-Boulder media relations, 303-735-0528