The team is one of eight to send a project on a NASA ship traveling to space in 2025.

NASA’s CubeSat Launch initiative gives U.S. universities and other organizations a chance to build satellites and participate in space research. The catch: A low-cost prototype still requires about $100,000 to make, and no federal funding exists for this program.

University of Hawaii Student Stories project badge

So when students at the University of Hawaii Manoa wanted to build a satellite to study causes of global warming, their mentor, Peter Englert, a geology professor, said they first needed to raise the money. They did, earning grants such as a Hawaii Space Grant and an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program grant for international students.

Each year, UROP awards approximately $500,000 in funding to students working on faculty-mentored creative work, research projects or presenting at conferences. Hawaii Space Grant Fellows get a stipend of $4,000 per semester and up to $500 for supplies, according to the National Space Grant Foundation.

Englert said they would have just 18 months to build it.

NASA called for proposals from universities in August and they were due in November. NASA announced in late March that UH Manoa would be one of eight universities to have a spot on its ship being launched into space in 2025. All of those projects were aimed at addressing aspects of the federal agency’s education, science or technology development goals.

The original team members who started the project will recruit new members for the upcoming fall, then that new team will be on the hook to complete and deliver the spacecraft by December 2024.

manoa-higp-epet-cubesat university of Hawaii satellite uh beat
Earth and Planetary Exploration Technology program student in a vacuum chamber. (University of Hawaii)

The satellite – named VIA-SEEs – is a very small spacecraft that will orbit Earth. CubeSat is the overarching label for these types of crafts because they are generally cube-shaped, according to a NASA Kennedy Space Center informational video. The UH spacecraft will be 4 inches wide, long and deep — small enough to fit into your hand — and weighs about 3 pounds.

“So it’s tiny, like a loaf of bread size,” said Katlynn Vicuna, a student leader on the VIA-SEEs team.

The CubeSat will probe potential causes of global warming, including measuring solar particles from the sun and their effects on the atmosphere.

The UH team was originally formed as part of the Earth and Planetary Exploration Technology program developed and taught by the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology.

  • Stories By University Of Hawaii Students

EPET is a stand-alone certificate program at UH that requires 15 credits earned in four courses over four consecutive semesters.

“It opens up job opportunities in the growing aerospace environment,” Englert said.

The student team for this project started together in fall 2022 through a combination of EPET 301 undergraduate students, Earth Sciences 404 undergraduate and graduate students in one class, by special arrangement.

“Instead of splitting up and finding several different projects, the space science students decided to work as a large team,” Englert said. “Haile Brown and Katlynn Vicuna emerged as the natural leaders of the project.”

Vicuna served in two critical roles on the project. 

“I worked on everything. We all did because there aren’t many of us,” Vicuna said. “But my role was being the systems engineer and communication lead, where I make sure all the parts and pieces are all together and make sense. And as the communication lead, I was in charge of all the radios and antennas on the spacecraft that talk to the ground stations to send data.”

Graphic depicting the states being represented from which NASA selected small research satellites in the 14th Round of CubeSat Mission. (NASA)

Once the spacecraft is in orbit, the team will never see it again, so part of Vicuna’s job was to make sure the students could still communicate with VIA-SEEs and access key information.

“EPET showed how to understand the missions that are already out there,” Vicuna said, “the equipment used on those missions, how to make our own mission with its own payloads in theory, and then how to make it come to life into a real life space ready satellite to collect actual important scientific data.”

“It, by far, has been the most applicable class for real-world applications,” Vicuna added.

The team’s design was deemed unique and valuable by NASA, which allowed the students to then design the mission, mission payloads and the spacecraft itself.

“With a spacecraft delivery time for launch set, the next 18 months will add scheduling stress to the whole endeavor,” Englert said. “The core group and others who are interested in assisting the project have a great opportunity show their skills and perseverance.”

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