UTEP Team Lands Top Prize in National Space Competition

Last Updated on February 20, 2017 at 4:16 PM

Originally published February 20, 2017

By Lauren Macias-Cervantes

UTEP Communications

Being part of a space mission is a dream for many mechanical engineers. That dream will come true for a team of UTEP students whose CubeSat will be launched into space in 2017. A CubeSat is a miniature satellite often used for space research.

Salvatore T. " Tory" Bruno, CEO and President of United Launch Alliance, and President Diana Natalicio, center, stand with the winning CubeSat Team. The UTEP project, Orbital Factory II (OF2), will be on board the Atlas V rocket and placed into an elliptical orbit approximately 26,000 miles above Earth’s center. Bruno gifted a model of the 22-story high Atlas V to Natalicio. Photo: J.R. Hernandez/UTEP Communications

Students from The University of Texas at El Paso’s NASA MIRO Center for Space Exploration and Technology Research, or cSETR, placed first in the United Launch Alliance (ULA) CubeSat launch competition, known as CubeCorps. ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno traveled to El Paso and made the announcement Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 on the UTEP campus. 

"I am thrilled to announce The University of Texas El Paso as the first place winner of our CubeCorps competition," Bruno said. “Congratulations to the team; you are the next generation of rocket scientists and space entrepreneurs, and we are honored to be your ride to space.”  

The UTEP project, Orbital Factory II (OF2), will be on board the Atlas V rocket and placed into an elliptical orbit approximately 26,000 miles above Earth’s center. Bruno gifted a model of the 22-story high Atlas V to UTEP President Diana Natalicio.

“It was absolutely, hands-down far above all the others,” Bruno said of the UTEP team’s CubeSat proposal. “We’re actually pretty excited to fly the UTEP CubeSat.”

Mechanical engineering graduate student and team leader Diana Camacho and her teammates had the opportunity to meet Bruno and discuss their technology. She said the project has provided an invaluable opportunity to conduct research. 

“It’s extremely exciting,” she said. “I think that an experience (like this) as a student is amazing all around.”

ULA’s CubeCorps was established to encourage hands-on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) experiences and provide universities with the opportunity to launch their CubeSats.

Students and faculty members from UTEP’s Department of Mechanical Engineering will collaborate with engineers and technologists from Lockheed Martin Space Systems to design and develop the OF2, which will demonstrate on-orbit repair of solar cells using 3-D printing technology. The UTEP student team was led by research assistant professors Angel Flores-Abed, Ph.D., and Arifur Khan, Ph.D., cSETR research engineer Michael Everett, and David Espalin, associate director at UTEP’s W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation. 

UTEP’s CubeSat development initiative is a strategic partnership between the Keck Center and cSETR.  

“Our goal is to quickly position ourselves as a leader of this rapidly emerging area to bring more opportunities for our students,” said Department of Mechanical Engineering Chair and Director of cSETR Ahsan Choudhuri, Ph.D. “Although there are other major university players, our strategic strength in additive manufacturing and in-space propulsion makes us a formidable team.”

The ULA executive had the opportunity to see the University’s centers and resources during his visit. They enhanced his impression of the future UTEP’s students could have in the space industry.

“The laboratories that I’ve seen, the students I’ve talked to have impressed me to no end,” Bruno said. “I forsee a bright future for materials research here, CubeSats, propulsion, and all sorts of space applications. I think ULA and UTEP are going to be very, very good friends.”

ULA is the nation’s most experienced and reliable launch service provider, successfully delivering more than 115 satellites to orbit that provide critical capabilities for troops in the field, aid meteorologists in tracking severe weather, enable personal device-based GPS navigation and unlock the mysteries of the solar system. 

UTEP’s second CubeSat project, Orbital Factory I (OF1), is giving students from Bowie and Burges high schools and Hornedo Middle School the opportunity to work alongside University researchers to demonstrate robotic manipulations using a CubeSat platform. OF1 was the second place finisher of the Boston Museum of Science Fiction and New York NASA Space Grant Consortium High School CubeSat Competition. 

More K-12 learning opportunities will be included in the development and testing of CubeSats as part of cSETR’s commitment to engineering education at all ages. The center has many partnerships in place with schools in the area. As part of his visit, Bruno had the opportunity to interact with more than 200 K-12 teachers, students and their parents Feb. 15 in a special event on the UTEP campus.

“It turns out if you’re going to get someone interested in becoming an engineer or a scientist, you really need to catch them in their K-12 education,” he explained. “So these programs that will reach back into K-12 and inspire kids about math and science, allowing them to see examples and see themselves working in those fields and in those industries, is absolutely vital to capture their imagination and pull them through the University to the other side,” he said. 

He shared his story of starting to build rockets at age 12 and never giving up on his dream. It wasn’t easy. The rocket scientist recalled waking up at 4:30 a.m. to catch a bus to head to the closest community college. His perseverance resulted in a company that’s out of this world – literally – with 116 missions over 10 years with 100 percent success. His rockets have been to Mars 17 times and every planet including Pluto. Personally he’s had amazing experiences and met incredible people including the Dalai Lama. When asked for advice, he encouraged others to ignite their devotion and fuel it with endless effort.

“You can do it,” Bruno said. “I started from very humble beginnings. I just had a passion for space and a determination to get out and get an education and go to work in that industry. You can do what I did.”