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Satellite Designed By U Of I Students Set To Launch Into Space

University of Illinois engineering student Adam Newhouse holds a spool of the type of lightweight material used on the CubeSail satellite.

University of Illinois engineering student Adam Newhouse holds a spool of the type of lightweight material used on the CubeSail satellite. Anna Casey/Illinois Public Media

A small satellite built and designed by aerospace and engineering students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is scheduled to launch into space Wednesday night.

Dawn Haken, a senior at the U of I studying electrical engineering and student lead on the project, said the goal of the launch is to demonstrate a new technology that maneuvers satellites using reflective sails made of a lightweight material.

“Light hits the sail and then pushes it very slightly,” Haken said. “In the future, we hope to build larger satellites with bigger sails that can be used to maneuver satellites and take them to outer planets.”

The student-built satellite known as CubeSail is actually two cube-shaped satellites, each weighing less than a five-pound bag of sugar and not much larger in size. When launched a few hundred miles skyward into low-earth orbit, the cubes will separate and unfurl a solar sail ribbon between them that is approximately 250 meters across.

The CubeSail project at the U of I was first put in motion in 2005, but didn’t receive funding from NASA until 2008. Haken said she has been working on the project for about two years, often on her own free time outside of her coursework.

“I find it very exciting because it’s the opportunity to work on some real technology that’s actually going into space, even when we’re all just students here,” Haken said.

A Champaign-Urbana aerospace company, CU Aerospace, worked closely with the university on the CubeSail project. CU Aerospace co-founder and President David Carroll is a former aerospace student  who has been part of the effort to launch more lightweight material into orbit since his time at the U of I.

“I was an astronaut ‘wanna-be’ and got close,” Carroll said. “The next best thing to launching me into space, was to launch something that we’ve been a part of and fabricated.” 

Now, speaking from an industry perspective, Carroll says the technology used in the CubeSail could cut down on spacecraft mass and launch vehicle size.

“It ends up being a lower cost way to deliver satellites to interplanetary destinations,” Carroll said.

The satellite is expected to begin its journey into orbit at 10 p.m. Central time by hitching a ride on a commercial Electron Rocket launched from a site along the coast of New Zealand. The launch is part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites mission and will be operated by the private aerospace company Rocket Lab. A livestream of the launch will be available here, beginning 15 minutes before the rocket carrying the satellites takes flight.