Into Orbit

A tiny satellite is a big new step in Earth science research at UMBC.

It may only be the size of a tall coffee mug, but the launch of Qubscout-S1 on November 21 at 2:10 a.m. represents a big leap forward for UMBC researchers who have long awaited the chance to put a satellite in space.

Qubscout-1 was propelled into a low Earth orbit from a launch site in Yasny, Russia on a Dnepr LV rocket. The satellite was built as a joint venture between the university and Science and Technology Corporation (STC) – a small high-tech company based in Hampton, VA. The satellite measures 2 inches x 2 inches by 4 inches – and it is designed to test a micro sun-sensor that can be used to find and point instruments toward the sun.

UMBC students designed, constructed and tested the sun sensor, while STC built the satellite frame and provided funding for the project. Though the project has been in the works for almost three years, changes in attached payload availability kept the Qubscout-S1 out of orbit until now.

“STC came to us with a launch opportunity in early September 2010 and asked if it was possible to put together a small satellite mission to test a sun-sensor,” says J. Vanderlei Martins, an associate professor of physics who is the principal investigator on the mission. “They needed it in about two months. Our students had already been working on small satellites, so we had the capability and know how. Nonetheless, putting something together this quickly has to be some kind of record.”

After a few months in orbit, the satellite will unfold into a larger configuration to increase its drag and change its rotation rate. The team that built the Qubscout-S1 was able to make the project cost-effective by involving students in production and by building the satellite with materials already available on the market.

“We have a very innovative design that uses commercial off-the shelf materials,” observes Martins.

UMBC students will also stay involved in the project by checking the performance of the sensors installed on the Qubscout-S1, monitoring data transmitted from the satellite to radio receivers at the university.

The satellite that went into orbit on November 21 also represents the fulfillment of the plan set out by the Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology (JCET), which operates in a cooperative agreement between UMBC and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) at its founding in 1995.

“With the launch of the Qubscout satellite, JCET has now achieved all of the original goals defined when JCET was established in 1995,” says Danita E. Eichenlaub, the administrative director of JCET. “The center congratulates Dr. Vanderlei Martins and his entire team on this accomplishment.”

Adarsh Deepak, the president of STC, also hailed the launch of the Qubscout-1, observing that “this joint venture sets the stage for more exciting collaborations between STC and UMBC in the future. It also shows how small companies, working with a university team, can be part of America’s space future.”