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Virginia Engineering Students Tackle Satellite, Ground Station Projects


The University of Virginia (UVA) reports that some of its engineering students are among those at other Commonwealth schools working on Amateur Radio satellites and matching ground stations to track them and collect data. UVA said its student-built satellite is set to go into space late next year aboard an International Space Station resupply vehicle for later deployment from the ISS. The UVA project will be part of a joint mission with other Virginia universities to conduct atmospheric density studies, to gain a better understanding regarding the rates at which low-orbiting spacecraft slow down and ultimately leave orbit when encountering the drag of the atmosphere’s outer edges.

“We’re building our own version of NASA’s Mission Control, to communicate with our own spacecraft,” said Christopher Goyne, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor who serves as faculty adviser for the project. “Our students have a lot of work to accomplish prior to launch, and during the 6- to 12-month flight mission.”

The CubeSat, which will operate in the 70-centimeter amateur band, will be the first developed and flown by UVA. Assembly and testing will be completed this summer. UVA’s CubeSat is one in a constellation of three spacecraft being designed and built by students at UVA, Virginia Tech, and Old Dominion University through the Virginia Space Grant Consortium. Hampton University also is collaborating. Each university will operate its own ground station, and students will communicate with each other throughout the mission. They also are collaborating on many other aspects of the project.

“One of the most worthwhile aspects of this project has been working with the student teams at Virginia Tech, ODU, and Hampton,” said fourth-year student Colin Mitchell, KN4BBF, who is set to graduate this spring with degrees in mechanical engineering and physics. Mitchell is a member of the data and communications team, which is writing software for the UVA CubeSat and will handle the radio communication aspects. He and fellow student Tyler Gabriele, KN4BBE, studied for and obtained Technician tickets so they can test the radio gear, and other students associated with the project also will earn their licenses as the project develops.

Goyne’s group recently began work to construct the ground station, with assistance from the UVA Amateur Radio Club (W4UVA). The Amateur Radio club will provide technical expertise and assist in the operation of the ground station.

“We’ve got to configure this station properly and shake out any bugs before the mission starts,” said Mike McPherson, KQ9P, a UVA ham club trustee and ARES Assistant Emergency Coordinator for Albemarle County. “We’re going to spend about 6 months tracking other satellites as practice.”

UVA’s CubeSat is a multi-year project, passed down to each succeeding group of fourth-year engineering students as part of their final projects.