NASA Sends Satellite Developed by UK Students, Faculty to Space

Photo of UK students working on SGsat
UK students Timothy Lim and Zachary Porter working in the UK Space Systems Lab on what would become SGSat. Photo by Jacob Owen.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 19, 2017) — A tiny satellite developed by University of Kentucky College of Engineering students and faculty is on its way to the International Space Station (ISS).

The satellite was launched yesterday, April 18, on NASA's OA-7 Space Station cargo resupply mission from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The launch went smoothly and the Atlas V launch vehicle performed above nominal expectations. The Cygnus spacecraft carrying UK Engineering’s satellite will dock with ISS early Saturday morning.

Eventually, the satellite will be launched into orbit from the International Space Station. 

"I remember being a middle school student touring the University of Kentucky Space Systems Lab (SSL), wondering how it would feel to be a part of space operations," said UK engineering student Matthew Ruffner. "Now I know. Getting this experience with space operations so early in my academic career is invaluable. " 

The CubeSat Stellar Gyroscope System, or SGSat, captures images of star fields to keep itself in orbit and tests new software that predicts the satellite’s path as it experiences atmospheric drag. The technology could open doors for small satellites, which are cheaper than large satellites, but have been limited due to the difficulty in determining their movement in space.

Although SGSat is only the size of a tissue box, it's not short on technology — featuring a small camera, a low-power computer, software and solar panels. The camera will take consecutive pictures of stars. A low-power computer on the satellite will analyze those pictures, identifying the same star in each image and measuring how much the star moved in the pictures. This measurement will then be used to determine how the satellite moved between those images.

The satellite will also test a new software tool — Smart Nanosatellite Attitude Propagator (SNAP) software — developed by a team of undergraduate and graduate students at UK. The software aims to improve satellite orbit tracking and prediction.

UK College of Engineering Professor James Lumpp has been traveling between Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Kentucky this semester for preparations.

"While we have been developing both free-flying satellites and ISS payloads for several years, this is a unique opportunity to get a free-flyer into orbit by releasing it from an airlock on the ISS," Lumpp said. "This project is the culmination of many years of work by many dedicated people and it will be very exciting to see it launch."

This is the third small satellite developed by UK students and faculty. Lumpp and UK students in the Space Systems Laboratory developed its first CubeSat, KySat-1, in 2011, but the launch vehicle did not reach orbit. In 2013, the lab watched as their KySat-2, a replacement for KySat-1, launched on the ELaNa IV mission.

"Joining the ranks of the relative few people in human history that have their fingerprints in space is something that’s cool to think about," said Drew Wilder, a UK mechanical engineering graduate and currently a graduate student in UK's One Year MBA program, who continues to work in the Space Systems Lab.

The SGSat project is supported by NASA EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research), a program of the NASA Office of Education that develops U.S. aerospace research and the aerospace STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workforce. The project is administered by NASA Kentucky, hosted at UK to advance aerospace research and education across Kentucky.