On the morning of January 31, 2019, the University of Southern Indiana’s first student-built spacecraft was shot out of the International Space Station 250 miles above the south Atlantic. Fifty-five minutes later it “phoned home,” and has been transmitting data ever since.
Plasma measurements will be taken a year from now when the altitude of the spacecraft’s orbit falls below 200 miles, but temperature data was taken right away, and some preliminary analysis has been done by the students.
“The internal temperatures of UNITE have been ranging between 50 degrees and – 2 degrees Fahrenheit,” explained Dr. Glen Kissel, Associate Professor of Engineering at USI, and faculty advisor for the UNITE project.
“On the outer surfaces UNITE is sensing temperature swings from about 120 degrees to as low as -75 degrees Fahrenheit,” Kissel continued.
The UNITE spacecraft circles the Earth every 93 minutes, and during a portion of that time the spacecraft is in the Earth’s shadow, but for just over half the orbit it experiences direct heat from the sun without any atmosphere to protect it.
A year ago, the USI students tested UNITE in a vacuum chamber at Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, but they weren’t able to simulate the lower end of expected orbital temperatures in that chamber. In fact the thermal model wasn’t even predicting such cold temperatures. “We are pleased the spacecraft is holding up so well in the cold of space,” Dr. Kissel added.
On December 5, the UNITE spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as part of the cargo headed to the International Space Station.
Since its deployment at the end of January, UNITE has functioned as expected and is awaiting its primary mission in early 2020.