About the University Nanosat Program

The University Nanosat Program is a joint program between the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate (AFRL/RV), the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). The primary objective is workforce development and is the foundation that underpins all UNP decisions. The program is structured to emphasize the lessons learned from building a complex system. The second objective is technology development at the component, system, or architecture levels. The final objective is to support development (or sustainment) of space science research at US universities.

Objectives of the University Nanosat Program

The University Nanosat Program has four distinct stages. The first stage, Phase A, is a satellite design and protoflight build phase, which lasts approximately two years and culminates in the AIAA Student Satellite Flight Competition Review (FCR). The satellites can vary in size from 1U CubeSats to 50kg microsats. During this first phase the universities are partially funded by Air Force Office Scientific Research (AFOSR) and construct a protoflight satellite while participating in various design reviews and program-sponsored hands-on activities and workshops throughout the two-year period. All universities are evaluated based on several criteria, including Student Participation/Education, Technical Relevance/Excellency, and Flyability (meaning that the hardware adheres to strict quality assurance and spaceflight qualification practices). The winners of FCR will move on to the second stage of the program, Phase B. FCR judges are a distinguished panel of government and industry professionals.

The winner(s) of FCR move into Phase B which typically lasts for another two years. Universities will continue to receive partial funding from AFOSR and further guidance to developing a flight-ready satellite. This is done with multiple reviews documenting the maturity of the hardware. At the end of Phase B it is expected the university will deliver to AFRL a flight ready satellite for Environmental Stress Screening (ESS) which begins Phase C. Most programs in Phase B will move into Phase C. Phase C is performed at AFRL Space Vehicles Directorate and consist of ESS testing. Once all tests are passed the satellite is placed into controlled storage to await launch.

The final phase, Phase D, consists of on-orbit operations and End of Mission.

Phases of the University Nanosat Program

History of the University Nanosat Program

The University Nanosat Program began in January 1999 as a collaboration between nine universities, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the AFOSR, and AFRL/RV. The original program conception was to launch all completed and delivered nanosatellites using the Space Shuttle. Originally, University Nanosat-1 (NS-1) had participation by Stanford, Boston, and Carnegie-Mellon Universities. Nanosat-2 (NS-2) was concurrent with Nanosat-1 and consisted of two formation-flying clusters or stacks of spacecraft to be separated individually on orbit. Each so-called “stack” was a unit of three individual satellites; each designed and built by a separate university. The first NS-2 stack was named ION-F (its primary mission was ionospheric-based experiments and formation flight between the individual universities) and was built by Utah State University, Washington University and Virginia Technological University. The second stack, named Three Corner Sat for the three states it represented, was built by the University of Colorado at Boulder, New Mexico State University, and Arizona State University. Significant challenges to both the universities and external factors (such as the Columbia accident) led to major reorganization of the program in the following years. Of the nine participating universities (NS-1 and NS-2), only three successfully delivered working spacecraft, the Three Corner Sat (3CS) stack. The primary goals of the 3CS mission were to demonstrate stereoscopic imaging, formation flying, and innovative command and data handling. 3CS launched two of its three individual satellites into space on December 21, 2004, on the inaugural demonstration flight of the Boeing Delta-IV heavy vehicle. 3CS was successfully separated from the vehicle, but, due to a sensor glitch onboard the launch vehicle, it was placed in a lower than expected orbit that caused mission lifetime to run out before science goals were met. The third satellite of the original three, built by New Mexico State, was donated to the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

Exactly four years from inception, the University Nanosat Program kicked off Nanosat-3 in January 2003 with 13 selected universities. NS-3 incorporated many lessons learned from NS-1 and NS-2, most importantly the decision to implement a competition-based down-select process where all universities would be reviewed throughout the competition and only the most complete satellite would be selected for delivery to AFRL. Each university was required to deliver an Engineering Design Unit (EDU) at the end of the two year competition period in January 2005. The selection came down to several very close designs, and the decision was particularly difficult for the panel of judges. The University of Texas at Austin’s FASTRAC spacecraft was eventually selected as winner of the competition. FASTRAC, which stands for Formation Autonomous Spacecraft with Thruster, Rel-Nav, Attitude, and Crosslink, will aim to demonstrate autonomous high precision real-time relative navigation using innovative GPS technologies. FASTRAC was delivered to the AFRL in June 2006 for integration and testing for flight preparation and launched on a Minotaur IV in early 2010 as part of the STP-S26 mission. Of the remaining twelve NS-3 schools, the majority continued on to participate in Nanosat-4 (which began shortly after the NS-3 FCR). All NS-3 universities continued to focus on strong space science research.

Again, learning from legacy, the program adopted improvements for the March 2005 kickoff of Nanosat-4 (NS-4), in which 11 universities participated. The most significant change for the NS-4 teams was the requirement to deliver a complete protoflight Nanosat at FCR that was able to be quickly implemented to a full flight spacecraft for delivery to AFRL. The selection at the NS-4 FCR was very competitive and after much deliberation the judges chose Cornell University’s CUSat as the NS-4 winner. CUSat hopes to demonstrate an end-to-end on-orbit inspection mission using Carrier-phase Differential GPS (CDGPS) for orbital and attitude determination. CUSat was delivered to AFRL for final integration and testing in April 2008. As in previous rounds of Nanosat, several of the remaining schools from NS-4 participated in NS-5 and continue strong space science programs at their universities. CUSat was selected for launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 and launched in the fall of 2013.

Nanosat-5 (NS-5) kicked off in January 2007 with a very similar format to NS-4. For NS-5 the program began to move away from requirements that fit the Space Shuttle CAPE program and adopted requirements that better matched the ESPA standard. This change allowed the NS-5 schools to have a larger volume for designing their satellites. The 11 universities participating in NS-5 were very competitive and nearly all of them arrived at FCR with a completed protoflight satellite. The excellent turnout made the judges’ job at the January 2009 FCR very difficult, but in the end the University of Colorado at Boulder’s DANDE satellite was chosen as the NS-5 winner. DANDE, which stands for Drag and Atmospheric Neutral Density Experiment, hopes to perform drag and neutral density measurements of the low Earth atmosphere in order to further research in space weather and atmospheric models. Several of the remaining NS-5 universities are participating in Nanosat-6 which kicked off at the NS-5 FCR in January 2009.The DANDE spacecraft was selected for launch along with CUSat on the Falcon 9 launching in fall of 2013.

Nanosat-6 and Nanosat-7 had a sharp rise in number of satellites selected to move on to the next phase of the program. This was in thanks to external organizations deciding to fund certain satellites that had missions relevant to their areas of interest, as well as NASA’s ELaNa program providing launch opportunities to many university CubeSats.

Starting in 2011 UNP began to undergo multiple programmatic changes designed to create a more structured process throughout the different phases of the program. The UNP User’s Guide, which is the defining document for all student teams participating in the program, underwent major rewrites. The four Phases (A, B, C, D) were introduced. The program itself also started to receive greater manpower at the program office. This has allowed a vastly greater amount of man-hours to be put into managing and tailoring the program to better meet the three UNP objectives. The program office is still growing at this point (2013) and is receiving further fine tuning to provide a better workforce development opportunity for participating students.

University Nanosat Program