Left to right are Steve Jurczyk, NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate associate administrator, Benjamin Fried of the CU-E3 team, Kyle Doyle of the CisLunar Explorers, Wesley Faler of Team Miles, and Eugene Tu, NASA Ames Research Center director. Credit: NASA

MOFFET FIELD, Calif. — NASA announced plans June 8 to send three cubesats built by university students and moonlighting engineers into deep space on the first flight of the Space Launch System in 2019 as part of the space agency’s CubeQuest Challenge.

Teams led by Cornell University, the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Tampa Hackerspace won $20,000 and a ride into orbit. Those teams, in addition to any competitors who can find their own launches, will compete for an additional $5 million in a series of prizes for cubesats that demonstrate longevity in deep space and robust data communications.

NASA established the CubeQuest Challenge in 2014 to determine whether citizen inventors could find affordable and unique ways to build miniature spacecraft, James Cockrell, CubeQuest challenge administrator at the NASA Ames Research Center, said during a June 8 awards ceremony and press briefing at NASA Ames.

Steve Jurcyzk, NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate associate administrator, said he was impressed by the dedication of all the unpaid CubeQuest team members who took advantage of advances in miniature electronic components, additive manufacturing and the DIY movement to come up with innovative designs.

Cornell’s CisLunar Explorers’ cubesat, for example, uses electricity to split its water propellant into Hydrogen and Oxygen, which it burns as fuel.

“I’m excited about that because in the future you could go to Mars, Europa or a comet, gather up water and refuel your spacecraft,” said Kyle Doyle, the team’s project manager and a Cornell PhD student. “We want to show that if you can use water as a spacecraft propellant, you could do that with water from anywhere.”

Structures team member Raj Bansal assembling the CU-E3 prototype structure.
Structures team member Raj Bansal assembling the CU-E3 prototype structure. Credit: Team CU-E3

The University of Colorado’s CU-E3 cubesat team designed and prototyped a deployable flat-panel antenna array for high data rate communications. The CU-E3 cubesat also uses solar pressure, rather than propulsion, to keep the cubesat moving in the right direction, said Benjamin Fried, CU-E3 system engineer and University of Colorado Master’s degree student. 

The third team NASA selected for an SLS flight, Team Miles, comes from Tampa’s Hackerspace rather than a university. It’s a group of scientists and engineers with day jobs who spend evenings and weekends designing, building and testing cubesat components, said Wesley Faler, Team Miles leader and a software engineer.

Faler co-invented Team Miles’ patent-pending, iodine-fueled plasma thruster. The team also invented a software defined radio for the Miles cubesat.

Two of the competing teams, San Diego Students for the Exploration and Development of Space and Ragnarok Industries, were not selected for SLS rides. NASA officials said, however, that there may be opportunities to send those cubesats into low Earth orbit on other launch vehicles.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...