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ULA offers rides for university CubeSats

ULA CubeSat

Artist’s rendition of a CubeSat in orbit. Image Credit: ULA

United Launch Alliance (ULA) has announced an expansion of their CubeSat program with a new rideshare initiative that lets universities and colleges compete for flight opportunities.

“ULA will offer universities the chance to compete for at least six CubeSat launch slots on two Atlas V missions, with a goal to eventually add university CubeSat slots to nearly every Atlas and Vulcan launch,” said Tory Bruno, ULA president and CEO. “There is a growing need for universities to have access and availability to launch their CubeSats and this program will transform the way these universities get to space by making space more affordable and accessible.”

CubeSats have been in the spotlight since they were first designed in 1999. California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) and Stanford University developed the specification, which is now on the thirteenth revision. The concept started as a 4-inch cube (10 cm) electronics package (referred to as one unit or 1u) that could be flown into space as a piggyback payload. This method had the advantage being a more cost effective way to get student payloads into low-Earth orbit (LEO). One of the first CubeSats was launched in 2003 from Plesetsk, Russia. NASA has since flown more than 30 of the tiny spacecraft in collaboration with universities and businesses.

Anatomy of a CubeSat Mission

Anatomy of a CubeSat Mission. (Click to enlarge.) Image Credit: ULA

As the technologies have improved, the designs of CubeSats have evolved. The size was adjusted to allow easier deployment from spacecraft. A 1u CubeSat is now 10 cm × 10 cm × 11.35 cm with rails to guide it safely from the launcher. Additional sizes called 2u and 3u were also developed allowing for a wider range of electronics options.

The rapid miniaturization of hardware has allowed the CubeSat form factor to become a major player in Remote Earth Sensing (RES). Several companies are planning observational satellites based on the CubeSat specification. OneWeb is also looking into the use of modified version of the form factor for their constellation of internet relay satellites.

Colorado officials and University of Colorado leaders praised the move from the company whose headquarters are in Centennial, a high technology city just outside of Denver.

“This is exactly the kind of collaborative innovation that we celebrate in Colorado,” said Lt. Gov. Joseph Garcia. “Here, we have a Colorado company giving Colorado students at a Colorado university an unbelievable opportunity to send a satellite into space. What a great day for our state.”

“CU-Boulder students have been building and operating small satellites for 20 years, including the Colorado Student Space Weather CubeSat launched on a ULA Atlas rocket in 2012,” DiStefano said. “The ability to provide science and engineering students with the opportunity to fly the satellites they build is an invaluable motivational and educational tool. We are thrilled to partner with ULA, a visionary organization that is helping to facilitate a nationwide STEM effort.”

The University of Colorado will be the benefactor of a free ride on an upcoming flight according to ULA.

“Since its inception, ULA has been committed to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education initiatives and programs such as this help to motivate, educate and develop our next generation of rocket scientists and space entrepreneurs,” said Bruno. “We are making the announcement today with University of Colorado President Bruce Benson and University of Colorado Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano, key partners in STEM education, and are pleased to offer the university the first free CubeSat launch slot in 2017.”

The new rideshare program is still in search of a name and ULA is looking to educators and students for help. They have started a “name the new CubeSat program” contest with the winner getting a free CubeSat ride on a future mission. To submit an entry, e-mail your name suggestion to using a campus-issued e-mail address. The deadline for entry is December 18, 2015. ULA will announce the program name and the winner early next year.



Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.

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