Credit: Courtesy | Cal Poly PolySat

Cal Poly CubeSat is sending its 12th mission into space on Sunday, Jan. 17. They will launch their small satellite — the ExoCube 2 — from the wing of a modified Boeing 747 plane mid-flight.

Pauline Faure is a CubeSat co-director and an assistant professor in the department of aerospace engineering.

“This is extremely exciting,” Faure said. “Typically, the rockets will go from the ground and will just be thrusted into space, but instead now the airplane takes off with the rocket attached.”

CubeSat is a research and development program designed to provide students with low-cost opportunities to study and explore space. The program began in 1999 by Cal Poly and Stanford University’s Space Systems Development Lab. Since then, its initiative has been replicated within hundreds of organizations around the world, according to CubeSat’s website. NASA sponsored Cal Poly’s program along with several other universities to work on these small satellite projects — satellites the size of a cube — through its Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program.

CubeSat’s ExoCube 2, which Faure said is about the size of a loaf of bread, will ride aboard Virgin Orbit’s Launcher One rocket. The rocket will be attached to the wing of the Boeing 747 jet called Cosmic Girl. Once the plane reaches an altitude of 35,000 feet, the rocket will detach from the plane and launch into space. 

Faure said the purpose of this mission is not just to launch a rocket.

“We’re not just launching a spacecraft for the pleasure of launching a spacecraft,” Faure said. “This is actually a benefit to the scientific community.”

Grace Guarraia, mission lead for ExoCube 2 and physics sophomore, said that ExoCube 2’s purpose in orbit is to gather data on the mass and density of ions in the uppermost region of the earth’s atmosphere or the exosphere. With this kind of information gathered over time, CubeSat and scientists can learn more about the potential effects of “space weather,” according to Guarraia.

“Space weather is not like rain and snow and stuff,” Guarraia said. “It’s essentially like solar flares … and this solar weather can actually really affect our life, even if we’re not experiencing it directly.” 

Guarraia said that the effects of these solar flares can interfere with satellites orbiting Earth that provide us all with GPS, radio, defense systems and other important functions of satellites. 

Guarraia said she is excited to see how the satellite’s launch goes and is grateful for her involvement in CubeSat.

“It’s a special experience, and probably honestly the best part of my time being at Cal Poly is spent being in PolySat,” Guarraia said, referring to Cal Poly’s CubeSat lab. “I become a better student, a better future co-worker, and, you know, a better friend through PolySat. I’ve learned a ton.”

The window to launch is between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California.

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