On the Eastern Shore of Virginia against a clear blue August sky, a sounding rocket stood ready on the launchpad at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility. With undergraduate student teams, faculty advisors, and family eagerly awaiting and viewing the launch via livestream coverage, the countdown began. 

Late in the afternoon of Aug. 19, the Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket successfully launched into space, carrying projects developed by undergraduate students from eight community college and university teams as part of the national RockSat-X program

The projects aboard the rocket this year were a mix of technology and science experiments, including the development of a 360-degree camera for use on sounding rockets; space debris removal concepts; and collection of particles in space for research on the origins of life. 

Among these experiments was a solar array deployment system for CubeSats, developed by the RockSat-X team at Virginia Tech.

The RockSat-X program is an initiative of the Colorado Space Grant Consortium in conjunction with NASA's Sounding Rocket Program Office, to provide low-cost access to space for university student design teams.

Three years in the making, the RockSat-X team has been developing a CubeSat form factor, deployable solar array to enhance power generation capabilities on university CubeSat projects. 

These small satellites, 10 by 10 by 10 centimeters in size, are typically equipped with solar panels on several faces of the cube, but have power limitations due to the size of the panels and intended short-term length of mission. Using a series of scissor joints on a deployable extending arm, Virginia Tech’s 1U CubeSat is testing viability of a design that exposes additional solar cells, enabling future CubeSat experiments to take on more power-demanding missions.

Starting with a spark of an idea

Concepts for annual RockSat-X experiments are completely student sourced, as the Colorado Space Grant Consortium-based program is open to ideas and designs that demonstrate a new technological capability. Often, the Virginia Tech team members submit ideas, select an experiment, and then work with their faculty advisors and subject matter experts at the Center for Space Science and Engineering Research as well as several industry partners including Boeing, Northrop Grumman Space Systems, and the Virginia Space Grant Consortium, who give guidance on turning their idea into a viable payload and ensuring that it falls within the bounds of the mission parameters and safety guidelines set by the program.

In the fall semester, the team typically works on planning and design of the prototype for their mission. They move on to manufacturing, testing, and integration in the spring semester. Based on available space in the rocket and a critical design review, the most developed and capable university projects are selected for flight.

This particular experiment dates back to the 2018-19 academic year, and the team has experienced numerous hurdles throughout the way. During that first year, the project was deemed not mature enough at the time of the design review process, leading them to miss out on a coveted spot on the rocket that summer. The team continued to refine their payload and passed the design review the following year, only to see countless delays of the launch caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The payload section containing the eight RockSat-X undergraduate projects, prior to being incorporated into the Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket.
The payload section containing the eight RockSat-X undergraduate projects, prior to being incorporated into the Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket. Photo courtesy of Abby Schefer, student manager of the national RockSat-X program.

“At this point in time, I have put an absurd amount of time into this project,” said Eric Williams, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. “The team continued to forge ahead each time the launch was delayed, and tried to stay on track working off-campus during the pandemic. There are both feelings of elation and relief that it finally made it into space, given all the craziness of the project from start to finish.” 

Development of the solar panel deployer payload was split into two sub-teams, electrical and mechanical. The electrical team focused on the design and development of the solar panel array proper, the command and control subsystem, sensors, telemetry, and the power distribution system. The mechanical team focused on the design of the mechanical integration components, such as the electronics box and ballast, as well as the array deployer and burn wire system used to restrain the deployer during launch.

Vt's RockSat-X team's experiment, a CubeSat form factor, deployable solar array to enhance power generation
Three years in the making, Virginia Tech's RockSat-X experiment featured a deployable extending arm, supplying additional surface area for more solar panels to enhance power generation capabilities. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Jones.

Danny Flynn, a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in electrical and computer engineering, came aboard the team to design the power supply for the mission when he was a sophomore.

“For me, this was the first time something I physically put my hands on went into space,” said Flynn. “As soon as it was recovered from the Atlantic Ocean, we got the SD card out and started to dig through the data. We already know that the experiment met the minimum success criteria, as the panels successfully extended and we verified power generation.”

After flying to around 91 miles altitude, the payload with the experiments descended by parachute and landed in the Atlantic Ocean, about 64 miles off the Virginia coast approximately 15 minutes after launch. As a fail-safe, the RockSat-X team deployed two methods for data collection: the team installed a laser range finder on the deck plate to measure how far the solar panels moved from their base position and voltage/current sensors to measure power generation, saving the data to the payload’s internal storage; they also sent the voltage and current sensor data through a telemetry system on the rocket that downlinked to the NASA Wallops ground station.

Sweet success

Virginia Tech has participated in the national RockSat-X program since 2008 and has seen nine previous projects launched into space or near space, according to faculty advisor Kevin Shinpaugh, professor in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering. Approximately 30 undergraduates from across the College of Engineering have been involved with the RockSat-X deployable solar panel array experiment since the project’s inception in 2018.  

“The RockSat-X program is designed with hierarchical levels of success in mind,” said Shinpaugh. “This initiative gives undergraduates the unique opportunity to apply the science, technology, engineering, and math skills learned in the classroom to hands-on projects, and then see their efforts successfully launch into space.” 

Looking ahead, the team is recruiting for new members and already at work planning and designing their next experiment for the 2022 launch. For the 2021-22 academic year, the RockSat-X team is developing a CubeSat direction-finding experiment based on phased antenna array concepts. The payload will detect a signal known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast, which is an aircraft positional beacon system that broadcasts an aircraft’s position via radio, enabling it to be tracked.  

Share this story