UT Austin Satellite Team Stays Positive After Losing Project in Rocket Explosion

race satellite team

This article was updated on Oct. 29, 2014.

After a year and a half of designing, building and testing a small satellite, a team of Cockrell School of Engineering undergraduate and graduate students were set to watch their project head to the International Space Station on Oct. 28 from Wallops Island, Virginia. The satellite was aboard the unmanned Antares rocket, along with other cargo for a resupply mission to the space station.

Just seconds after liftoff, the rocket exploded, destroying the students’ RACE satellite along with various other research projects and experiments. There were no people injured in the explosion. The satellite was a collaborative effort between the school’s Texas Spacecraft Lab and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with the goal of helping scientists measure water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere, which would improve our understanding of the impacts of global weather and climate change.

innovation station launch photo

Graduate student Henri Kjellberg adjusts the RACE satellite carefully. View photos of the satellite just before it was sent to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to be prepped for launch to the ISS.

“It’s sad, but it’s still a positive experience,” aerospace engineering senior Cody Colley, who helped build RACE’s solar panels, told KXAN. “We still have to come to work tomorrow and keep building spacecraft and keep inspiring people. That’s what it’s about, and the science we’re doing.”

The small satellite, called RACE, which stands for Radiometer Atmospheric Cubesat Experiment, carried on it a new instrument designed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that would use radiation from the earth to measure atmospheric water vapor. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory tapped professor Glenn Lightsey of the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics and his student team for their expertise in building CubeSats, a type of satellite that is much smaller and less expensive to make and launch than a conventional satellite. The solar-powered RACE measured about 10 cm x 10 cm x 30 cm, weighed less than 10 pounds and operated with less power than is produced by a single light bulb.

Despite the rocket failure, Lightsey and the students said the experience and skills gained from working on the RACE satellite project, and these projects in general, are invaluable. He offered these words of encouragement to the students after the explosion:

"I know how many hours each of you has personally invested in the RACE mission, and I know there is a sense of loss. I want you to know how proud I am of your effort. The TSL exists because of the enthusiasm you bring to school every day. It is a pleasure to work by your side as we accomplish our tasks. I look forward to what we will accomplish in the future."

Directed by Lightsey, the Texas Spacecraft Lab is made up of undergraduate and graduate aerospace engineering students who design small satellites called CubeSats and NanoSats. Many of these satellites are designed in partnership with NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In 2013, the lab won first place in the national University Nanosatellite Program competition for its ARMADILLO satellite. The students are preparing to launch two satellites, including ARMADILLO, in early 2015.

To learn more about the Texas Spacecraft Lab visit lightsey.ae.utexas.edu

“It’s sad, but it’s still a positive experience,” said aerospace engineering senior Cody Colley. “We still have to come to work tomorrow and keep building spacecraft and keep inspiring people. That’s what it’s about, and the science we’re doing.”

“Although you want the mission to be successful, the value is in the doing,” faculty adviser and aerospace engineering professor Glenn Lightsey told the Austin American-Statesman.