UA Students Seize Second Chance at Space Launch

Emilee Boster, business and outreach lead for UASPACE, shows the frame and size for what will be a CubeSat.

A determined group of students at The University of Alabama is taking full advantage of a second opportunity at a project that could see their hard work launch into space after the last attempt ended in disappointment.

NASA greenlit a small satellite being built by students in UASPACE to hitch a ride on a rocket to the International Space Station to be sent into an orbit around the Earth. The team plans to deliver the satellite to NASA in February 2024 with launch likely during the spring semester.

“I’m excited to see where this goes and to see this team get redemption,” said Kara Alexander, manager of the project next year and a senior from Mason, Ohio, studying mechanical engineering and in the STEM Path To MBA program.

The chance at a rocket launch comes after UASPACE’s first satellite meant for orbit was lost after the rocket operated by a private company failed to deliver its payload into orbit. That day in February 2022 ended a years-long effort by students to design and fabricate the satellite.

“We were all in the lab watching, and there was a lot of excitement,” said Adam Kempf, a member of UASPACE from Louisville, Kentucky, and a senior aerospace engineering STEM Path student. “When it was clear the launch vehicle malfunctioned, there was a lot of disappointment and emotions.”

Later in 2022, NASA informed the team that if they could gather funding, another launch opportunity would be possible. The students got to work.

“We had this period where we stopped and recollected ourselves, and when we got the call that we could get another launch, it was all hands on deck to start again,” said Ethan Rodriguez, UASPACE president for the coming academic year from Belton, Texas.

UASPACE members Ryan Doody, right, and Ethan Rodriguez work on the ground station that will communicate with the CubeSat while in orbit.

The UA project is a small research satellite called a CubeSat selected to be part of the NASA CubeSat Launch Initiative in which educational institutions, nonprofit organizations and NASA are selected to participate.

“The real benefit to what we’re doing is the education we get. The experience and the people you meet mean more than the science objectives.

Adam Kempf, UASPACE team member

With their CubeSat, the UA students aim to demonstrate an emerging technology to bring satellites out of orbit quicker. The UA CubeSat, called BAMA-2, will fly in a Low Earth Orbit and eventually fall back to Earth and disintegrate in the atmosphere. But first, it plans to deploy a drag sail that should slow the CubeSat using the remnants of Earth’s atmosphere present in a Low Earth Orbit to reliably and rapidly deorbit.

Without the drag sail, the CubeSat could remain in orbit for five years, but the drag sail should deorbit the spacecraft in about 50 days. The UA students hope this novel demonstration of a drag sail will be part of efforts to address the growing concern of space debris and defunct satellites.

Braden Elsmore, a member of UASPACE, works on components of the BAMA-2 CubeSat.

While in operation, BAMA-2 will communicate with a ground station installed on campus by the students. The data collected will be used in possible future missions with the goal of devising predictive models of air density in Low Earth Orbit. This should help the aerospace community plan future use of drag sail technology.

Students on the team gain a range of skills including applying engineering and technical education to real-world applications, project management and budgeting, and sourcing and purchasing supplies. They also get to work with professionals in the aerospace industry.

“The real benefit to what we’re doing is the education we get,” said Kempf. “The experience and the people you meet mean more than the science objectives.”