Why We’re Helping a Student Satellite Get to Space

John Gedmark
Nov 6 · 3 min read

Getting to space is hard. But that’s where the rubber meets the road. For students to get the full benefit of learning how to build hardware, they have to actually fly it. We’ve been fortunate to see a huge uptick in student groups getting to build cubesats over the past few years, but finding a launch to space is still the missing piece. Funding sources for space launches are few and far between. Even with NASA’s help, many cubesats still are left sitting on the ground.

My co-founder Ryan McLinko and I are enthusiastic about all things space, so it makes sense that we met in 2006 through SEDS — Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. Ryan went on to be chapter president at MIT, just as I’d led the Purdue chapter, and we’ve both stayed deeply involved with the organization ever since. For decades, SEDS has nurtured undergraduate and graduate students’ passion for aerospace engineering at universities around the world, and championed a mission we both firmly believe in — that there’s no better way to learn than just building things.

That’s why Astranis partnered with Nanoracks and SEDS to create the SEDS SAT-2 competition, which will help a new generation of students build something that will actually fly in space. And today, we’re excited to announce the winner — Virginia Tech’s inspireFly team.

Last year, we challenged SEDS chapters across America to design a 1U CubeSat that can perform an innovative function or scientific test in low-Earth orbit. Thirteen chapters answered the call, and once the dust settled and the proposals were evaluated we identified three finalists, all projects that we’d love to see in space someday. Two of them, the joint MIT-Tufts-Northeastern team and the Rice team, were extremely worthy runners-up.

But in the end, after a very tough decision, Virginia Tech came out on top with a fun, smart, relevant idea that only students could have devised. As winners of the SEDS SAT-2 contest, Virginia Tech will build the ContentCube, basically a selfie stick for space that can take pictures of an external LCD screen — featuring publicly-submitted photos — with Earth in the background.

A mockup of the content cube, courtesy of the inspireFly team

As fun as the idea is, it’s equally scientifically valuable. No one has extensively tested LCD screens in space before, a novelty factor that, along with Virginia Tech’s large and well-functioning team, their commitment to research and budget-consciousness, and their discussion of diversity, pushed them to the head of the pack.

As a result, Virginia Tech’s inspireFly team will get to deploy ContentCube from the International Space Station. Their hardware is going to space.

Astranis could never have helped make their vision a reality without terrific partners like Nanoracks, which co-sponsored the competition and which will actually launch the satellite. And, of course, a big thanks goes out to SEDS itself, which all these years later is still giving space nuts a place to go to fuel their passion — and maybe even meet future co-founders.

Building a cubesat is a great experience, but, as we’ve learned at Astranis, there’s nothing quite so satisfying as seeing a project that began as a crazy dream actually end up working in outer space.

Congratulations to Virginia Tech, and thanks again to Nanoracks and SEDS for helping make these amazing students’ dreams come true.

John Gedmark

Written by

Cofounder & CEO of Astranis. Your friendly neighborhood rocket scientist.

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