Spaceflight Insider

University of Central Florida planetary scientist highlights CubeSat progress

Cubesat. Photo Credit: NASA

Photo Credit: NASA

ORLANDO, Fla.—Adrienne Dove, a University of Central Florida (UCF) planetary scientist, physicist, and associate professor, capped off the university’s 2018 Distinguished Speaker series with a talk about CubeSats and UCF’s involvement with CubeSat-based science missions.

Highlights of a growing program

Dove began her talk detailing some of the key activities of the university’s Physics Department.

UCF’s recent space efforts have included participating in NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission; measuring exoplanets using data from the Spitzer Space Telescope; serving as home to the Florida Space Institute; and most recently leading the consortium that will take over management of the Arecibo Observatory.

“This is big,” said Dove, noting that handling big activities is becoming a more common theme at the university.

CubeSat overview

Before talking about UCF’s projects, Dove explained what CubeSats were and how they operated. The 60-person audience at Tuscawilla Country Club consisted of local residents rather than a typical “space audience.”

The basic CubeSat is a near-cube structure (bus) measuring approximately 4 inches (10 centimeters) on one of its sides. Originally developed as a teaching tool at Stanford University in 1999, CubeSats have allowed university (and now even high school) students to go through the process of designing and building a functional spacecraft in a couple years.

Approximately 840 CubeSats have been launched since the system was created, with many more expected in the coming decade. As many as 700 are expected to be launched in 2023. In addition to academic purposes, national military forces and commercial organizations have also started using them for low-cost technology development or Earth observation purposes.

Dove shared a variety of charts depicting CubeSat statistics (“CubeStats,” as she called them). Many of the CubeSats to date have been launched by commercial entities such as Planet Labs, which has dispatched hundreds of “Dove” Earth observation satellites in “Flocks.

While CubeSats have been confined to Earth orbit up to now, in the near future they could be used to assist in planetary missions as well, with 11 CubeSat-class secondary payloads planned for launch on Exploration Mission One (EM-1), the first combined flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion. Some of these payloads will remain in the neighborhood of the Moon, others, such as NEA Scout, which is slated to use a solar sail to travel to a near-Earth asteroid. Two other CubeSats named MarCO (Mars Cube One) will accompany the Mars InSight lander to collect data from the lander’s entry and landing and to serve as communication relays back to Earth.

Phenomenal cosmic science, itty bitty spacecraft

Dove’s specialties include planetary sciences and the study of dusty plasmas in the solar system; she has also conducted laboratory and microgravity research (on aircraft, suborbital vehicles, and the International Space Station) on dusty plasmas, collisions, and planet formation. In line with these studies the two CubeSats UCF plans to launch this year address most of her specialties to one degree or another.

Talking about her subject matter in the context of CubeSats, Dove echoed the Genie from Disney’s Aladdin film, saying that UCF was studying “phenomenal cosmic science [in an] itty bitty spacecraft.”

SurfSat, the CubeSat for which Dove is the principal investigator, is designed to study the effects of electric charge buildup and discharge events on the surfaces of spacecraft flying through the ionosphere. Orbiting between 279 and 290 miles (450 and 467 km) at a 93° near-polar inclination, SurfSat is described as a 2U CubeSat. To do its work, SurfSat is half covered with solar panels for power, half covered with a variety of standard paints or coatings used on spacecraft. The spacecraft are slated to launch to help determine how these different materials react to electrical charges; study what happens when electrostatic discharge (ESD) events occur; and collect in-situ (on site) measurements of the plasma environment in the ionosphere.

SurfSat is expected to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta II rocket in September of this year (2018).

Q-PACE, the CubeSat Particle Aggregation and Collision Experiment, is being led by the UCF Physics Department’s Associate Chair Joshua Colwell. That spacecraft will study how small particles slowly coalesce (aggregate) in microgravity as way to investigate how planets formed in the early solar system. Inside the 3U CubeSat, a collection of particles—some artificial, some natural meteorites—ranging from millimeters to a couple centimeters across will be placed in a chamber that can be agitated in all three dimensions. An onboard GoPro camera will then record how the particles come together in the chamber and in what configurations.

Q-PACE is scheduled to launch aboard Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne vehicle into a 98° inclination, 342-mile (550-km) orbit this summer. While NASA selected the rockets for each payload based on their designated orbital altitudes, Dove told Spaceflight Insider that in the future, the university planned to take a more active role in selecting its launch vehicles.

The talk concluded with a question-and-answer session with the audience. Given the size of CubeSats, it might not have been surprising that many of the questions focused on the potential for creating space junk. Dove assured her listeners that UCF follows a NASA protocol that is meant to ensure their payloads will deorbit and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere upon reentry.

Dove finished her talk speaking about the potential of smallsat launchers to speed up the time it takes to get CubeSats to orbit. She also noted that while the UCF CubeSats could contribute to fundamental science, most importantly they could provide hands-on educational opportunities for UCF students. Indeed, she told Spaceflight Insider that the bulk of the work done on SurfSat and Q-PACE was done by students.

With its ambitious projects to date and easy access to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Dove expressed hope that UCF would build up the physical and educational infrastructure to make CubeSats a regular UCF product in the future.





Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.

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