Universities in Space: Seriously Higher Education

The future of smallsats is bright – and judging by the work that universities and their students are doing, it’s only going to get better. Aerospace engineering programs are getting more popular as students look to enter the new space race, and the focus on satellites is increasing. NASA’s ELaNa (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) has been a very successful initiative to attract and retain students in the field of satellite research, and has involved many universities.


While the number of universities doing excellent work in satellite technology innovation and research is too long to list here, we wanted to call out a few in particular who are moving the industry forward and a few (cool) projects they are working on:

Cal Poly: They literally wrote the book on smallsats. They (along with Stanford University’s Space Systems lab) developed the CubeSat standard. Though the CubeSat was originally developed for students, industry quickly saw the advantages of launching spacecraft at a fraction of the cost of typical satellites. They continue to be on the forefront of the industry, and are currently working with the Planetary Society (and Georgia Tech) on the LightSail project, with the goal of demonstrating “solar sailing” as a viable form of satellite propulsion.

Cal Poly Groundstation, Friis (Photo credit: Cal Poly)
Cal Poly Groundstation, Friis
(Photo credit: Cal Poly)

University of Michigan: This stalwart of engineering schools has made great advances in smallsat research and has produced many engineers currently working in the field. Right now, they are working with NASA on the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) which aims to improve extreme weather prediction through a constellation of eight smallsats.

University of Texas: Texas is? a hotbed for space enthusiasts. UT Austin has the Center for Space Research, where extensive research is being done using satellite data, to research everything from gravity fields to climate change and Mars exploration. Currently, students at UT’s Texas Spacecraft Lab (TSL) are working on launching the ARMADILLO CubeSat in 2017 which will characterize and track space debris at the submillimeter level. Proximity to the Johnson Space Center also allows students to collaborate or showcase their work to the scientists there.

Air Force Academy: FalconSAT is the name of the US Air Force Academy’s smallsat engineering program. The program allows cadets the opportunity to design, analyze, build, test and operate small satellites for Department of Defense missions. The first Falcon satellite, Falcon Gold, went up on an Atlas rocket in 1997. In 2017, FalconSAT6 is scheduled to launch, with a host of experiments on board, including a new ionic thruster that will test a new method of maneuvering in orbit.


MIT: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Space Systems Laboratory is working on smallsat research and development in partnerships across academia, industry and government. One recent project demonstrated how a small group of smallsats could measure the earth’s reflected energy with twice the accuracy of large “monolith” satellites. And one alum has founded a company that has developed a commercial “electrospray” propulsion system for cubesats that is the size of a pack of gum.

CU Boulder: The MinXSS Mission launched by the students at Colorado University Boulder won best mission at this year’s SmallSat Conference. They were the people’s choice and confirmed by a panel of 20 experts from the smallsat industry. It’s just one of many honors the university’s Aerospace Engineering Sciences department can take credit for.

The annual student competition at the SmallSat conference has provided great opportunities to showcase the next generation of smallsat engineers. More than 45 universities have participated in the 25 years the conference has been going on.

SmallSat Student Pres-Skarupa (2)
Valerie Skarupa, Endowment Chair at SmallSat and Spaceflight Director of Government Business

“The Student Competition is my favorite event of the year!” says Valerie Skarupa, Director of Government Business for Spaceflight and Endowment Chair of the Frank J. Redd Student Competition at SmallSat.
“We are always amazed at the technical quality of the submissions and presentations by the students.”

SmallSat Student winners- (3)
SmallSat Student winners!

Many past winners have gone on to positions in the aerospace industry where they are taking the technology to the next level. At Spaceflight Industries, we’re lucky to have a two-time winner, John Springman, as our own space architect.

Academia will continue to be critically important to the future of the smallsat industry. Its mission of training tomorrow’s experts and conducting the research that will take smallsats to the next level is one that we look forward to following (and benefitting from!)

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