(Above) From right to left, Nick Angle and Josh Smoot, an aerospace engineering major, make minor modifications on the custom-made flight board for the CubeSat, prior to its April launch.
In April 2019, NASA’s Cygnus NG-11 rocket blasted off into space from Wallops Island, Virginia, carrying a satellite built by undergraduate students from across Virginia Tech. Watching the lift off was Nick Angle, a senior in the Department of Physics, whose own hard work was on the rocket.
“The launch of the CubeSat on NG-11 was my first live rocket launch and I rate it as the greatest experience in my life,” he said, months later. “Not only was it awesome to see, feel, and hear a rocket take off, but to know that something that I had designed was going to orbit the Earth fills me with immense pride.”
Work on the CubeSat – a first for undergraduate students at Virginia Tech – is the culmination of several years of work by scores of students, mostly from the College of Engineering’s departments of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering and Computer Sciences, but also from the College of Science. A majority of the work took place at Virginia Tech’s Center for Space Science and Engineering Research (that’s Space@VT, for short) and is part of the Virginia CubeSat Constellation, a collaborative effort between the Virginia Space Grant Consortium and four of its member universities: Virginia Tech, Old Dominion University, University of Virginia, and Hampton University.
The project’s mission is to obtain measurements of the properties of the Earth’s atmosphere in low earth orbit. There are three cube-shaped satellites in all, hence the name CubeSats. Each cube is about 4 inches long and weigh approximately 3 pounds. Small in size, they contain a motherboard, a global positioning system unit, radio, solar panels, and a power system.
This is where Angle comes in. He worked on the electrical power system and the design of the satellite’s physical structure. “I helped to design the mechanical structure of the satellite, including the positioning of the flight board, GPS and radio board, and the electrical power system board, as well as various sensors and switches,” Angle said. “I also found myself working on the design and construction of the wire harnesses within the satellite, which involved choosing the necessary connectors and cable lengths for each sensor, solar panel, and other breakouts on the boards.”
The work was months long, with late nights, early mornings, and lots of techy bugs to hunt and fix, Angle said. When the trio of satellites launched from the International Space Station in July, new work began for Angle and his teammates, including updating satellite communication software and collecting data.