To Infinity and Beyond

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Orbiting our planet, a miniaturized satellite collected data for research. Although this tiny satellite, known as a CubeSat, is just a four-inch cube (dubbed 1U, or unit), the story of the team behind this project has come full circle, empowering graduates to find careers with skills they directly learned conducting research at Auburn University.

Dr. Jean Marie Wersinger, emeritis professor in the Department of Physics in the College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM), created the initial Auburn University Student Space Program as a workforce development initiative that would train students in what he saw as a newly developing paradigm in space access and use. This led to the first CubeSat created by the program, named AubieSat-1.

On Oct. 27, 2011, AubieSat-1 launched into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. This was the first student-built satellite in the state of Alabama to be accepted by NASA for an official launch. The results from AubieSat-1 provided data on various forms of solar cell protection materials. The information showed the two sides of the CubeSat covered with a plastic encapsulate substantially extended the lifetime of the solar cells.

“AubieSat-1 provided essential research data that 50 percent of the efficiency of the solar cells was completely lost in just two months without having this coating,” said Dr. Wersinger.

Since the inception of the program, more than 1,000 students from across Auburn University have actively participated.

“Knowing what it takes to build a satellite helped me land an internship at SpaceX after my senior year and was instrumental in my getting fully funded to enter a Ph.D. program that aligned with my interests,” explained Sanny Omar, an AubieSat-1 team member, ‘15 aerospace engineering and alumnus of the Honors College.

Launching a new partnership, satellite and careers Auburn University has an exciting new CubeSat project underway, involving more than 30 students per semester, which will launch in 2021. Two, six-unit CubeSats are being designed and built to study the emission of high-energy gamma-rays produced by tropical storms on Earth. This new project is possible with funding through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant of $893,873, and is a partnership among Auburn University, NSF, University of Alabama at Huntsville and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

It also brought a new name to the program, the Auburn University Small Satellite Program, and a new faculty mentor, Dr. Michael Fogle, associate professor in the Department of Physics in COSAM. The goal of the program is to continue workforce development but also use the developed expertise in the program to utilize the now mature CubeSat platform for new science and technology initiatives.

“CubeSats have recently gone to Mars and will continue to be more efficient options to large-scale satellites in many cases,” said Fogle. “Since it is too costly to launch all missions on a large-scale, CubeSat programs provide an opportunity for a significantly lower expense while retaining some of the same capability. This disruptive technology is changing the slope of advancement in science, and students at Auburn University are experiencing it first-hand.”

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Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn's commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact. Auburn's mission to educate, discover and collaborate drives its expanding impact on the world.