University-Class Spacecraft

Please note that this page has not been updated since late 2013. My interests (and publication/funding sources) shifted to CubeSats as a whole, not just university-class missions. This page remains here in the hopes that I can one day dislodge enough time to link it to my database/plot-generation engine, and keep it automatically updated.

Also, while this page is out-of-date, my university-class database is current. If you have a particular question about university-class missions, please contact me. It's relatively quick for me to parse the database by hand. 


Understanding "university-class" spacecraft is an interest of mine, and I'm making (some of) the data available here.  

The page has the following sections:
As repeated, below, I am responsible for all definitions and classifications.  Any and all errors in the data are also my fault.  If you spot an error, or take issue with my classifications, please contact me:  mswartwo@slu.edu.

Definitions

University-Class

As the title indicates, this site is about university-class satellites (sometimes called student-built satellites); we prefer this term to “student satellite” because the latter has become nonspecific through overuse; multimillion-dollar science missions and 3-kg Sputnik re-creations are both called “student” spacecraft.  Thus, for the purposes of this study, we define a university-class spacecraft to have three distinct features: 
  1. It is a functional spacecraft, rather than a payload instrument or component. To fit the definition, the device must operate in space with its own independent means of communications and command. However, self-contained objects that are attached to other vehicles are allowed under this definition (e.g. PCSat-2, Pehuensat-1). 
  2. Untrained personnel (i.e. students) performed a significant fraction of key design decisions, integration & testing, and flight operations. 
  3. The training of these people was as important as (if not more important) the nominal “mission” of the spacecraft itself. 
Therefore, the significant distinction of a university-class satellite (as opposed to a space mission with strong university participation) comes from programmatics, not cost or performance; while university-class satellites have traditionally been lowcost and low-performance, this is a logical consequence of the way the missions have proceeded, not an inherent part of their nature. (In fact, there is a mistaken belief that university-built spacecraft are a low-cost alternative to “professional” satellites; see my 2004 paper for further discussion.) The purpose of a university-class mission is to train students in the design, integration and operation of spacecraft, and this is accomplished by giving students direct control over the progress of the program. Many spacecraft with strong university connections do not fit this definition, especially those where the university contributes the primary payload. Similarly, while some spacecraft in the amateur radio service are university-class, there are many with the OSCAR designation that do not fit the definition. Exclusion from the “university class” category does not imply a lack of educational value on a project’s part; it simply indicates that other factors were more important than student education (e.g., schedule or on-orbit performance).  Our definition is simply a way to limit the discussion to a specific class of university missions. I recognize the incomplete nature of the information used to determine which spacecraft are university-class, and regrets any mistakes. 

Finally, it should be noted that NASA’s University Explorer (UNEX) program sometimes calls its spacecraft “university-class missions;” none of the UNEX missions to date fit our definition of university-class (though UNEX missions are not categorically excluded). 

Flagships

Next, we have identified two broad categories of schools building flight hardware: flagship schools and independent schools. We define a flagship university as one designated by its government as a national center for spacecraft engineering research and development. Independent schools are all the remaining universities. By definition, flagships enjoy financial sponsorship, access to facilities and launch opportunities that the independent schools do not. And these differences have a profound effect: as will be shown there is a disparity in both launch rates and mission success between the two classes; generally speaking, flagship schools build bigger satellites with more “useful” payloads, and tend to have sustained programs with multiple launches over many years. By contrast, the satellites built by independent schools are three times more likely to fail, and for most of these programs, their first-ever spacecraft in orbit is also their last, i.e., the financial, administrative and student resources that were gathered together to built the first satellite are not available for the second. Note: With the widescale adoption of CubeSats, the harsh split between flagships and independents is lessening. Stay tuned!

Process for Creating the Tables

This information was compiled from online sources, past conference proceedings and author interviews with students and faculty at many universities, as noted in the references.  

First, a list of all university-related small satellites that reached orbit (however low) was assembled from launch logs, the author’s knowledge and several satellite databases.  Because of the difficulty in compiling and verifying information about student missions that were started but not completed, we have only included projects with a verifiable launch date. Furthermore, missions that did not meet the definition of “university-class” as defined above were removed from this list.

The remaining spacecraft were researched regarding mission duration, mass and mission categories, with information derived from published reports and project websites as indicated.

This list of spacecraft is complete to the best of the author’s ability; certain aspects are known to be incomplete and are noted as such. For example, the listed launch masses should be considered approximate, as the variance in mass among different published records can reach as high as 50%. Similarly, values in the Mission Duration column are approximate; in the course of our research, we found some spacecraft that were known to have lost most or all of the primary payloads and communications equipment and yet were still listed as “operational”! In other cases, spacecraft that have greatly exceeded their planned mission lifetime may be left idle or even abandoned by their primary operators, and thus the failure date of the vehicle is unknown.

Missions

Explanation of terms
  • Launch Date - date that the spacecraft was released from its host.  For most missions, we use the date that the rocket itself was launched.  For some missions (e.g. Santa Clara's picosats), the satellite was attached to/in another satellite; in those cases we use the date of release on-orbit.
  • Name - common name of the project.  Where applicable, we also use the AMSAT designation.
  • Contractor - the school(s) responsible for building, testing and operating the mission.  Where more than one school is involved, we tend to designated one as the lead institution.  Where there are too many schools to count (or no lead can be identified), we use generic terms (e.g., "European Universities").
  • Mass - liftoff/wet mass of the satellite
  • Nation - the home nation of each school
  • Mission Type
    • A T (technology)) mission flight-tests a component or subsystem that is new to the satellite industry (not just new to the university).
    • An S (science) mission creates science data relevant to that particular field of study (including remote sensing).
    • A C (communications) mission provides communications services to some part of the world (often in the Amateur radio service).
    • While every university-class mission is by definition educational, those spacecraft listed as E (education) missions lack any of the other payloads and serve mainly to train students and improve the satellite-building capabilities of that particular school; typical E-class payloads are COTS imagers (which provide general, low-resolution Earth imagery), on-board telemetry, and beacon communications. 
  • Sub-Type
  • Mission Status - We have defined levels of mission success, based on how much of the mission objectives have been achieved. Mission status is distinct from spacecraft functional status; mission status is only concerned with how much of the primary mission has been achieved. An otherwise-functional spacecraft with a broken primary payload would be stuck at Level 3. A spacecraft that cannot downlink its mission data, for whatever reasons, would be stuck at whatever Level it achieved at the point of failure. A spacecraft that achieved its mission success and then died is still at Level 5 (because the mission objectives were accomplished).
    • 0 (Manifested): A launch date has been published. We don't keep track of missions until a launch date has been published.
    • 1 (Launched): The rocket began liftoff. (Launch failures usually stop at Mission Status 1.)
    • 2 (Deployed): The spacecraft is confirmed to have released from the launch vehicle.
    • 3 (Checkout): The spacecraft has had at least one uplink and downlink.
    • 4 (Primary operations): The spacecraft is taking actions that achieve primary mission success (i.e., receving commands, downlinking mission data)
    • 5 (Mission success): Primary mission objectives have been met. The spacecraft may continue to operate, run secondary missions, etc.
  • Functional Status - the current operational capabilities of the spacecraft
    • D (De-orbited) indicates that the spacecraft is not in space (either it has not launched, or it has de-orbited)
    • N (Non-operational) indicates that the satellite has no operational subsystems.
    • S (Semi-operational) indicates that the spacecraft is currently operating in a diminished capacity. An inability to uplink commands automatically qualifies a spacecraft for semi-operational status.
    • A (Active) indicates that the spacecraft is currently operating in its nominal operating state.  [Temporary loss of control or periodic outages for maintenance are still considered to be active status.]

Missions


Schools

The columns are as follows
  • School - the school name.  Common names for schools are often used in place of their official name.
  • Nation - home nation of the institution
  • First launch - launch date is defined as the release from whatever rocket or satellite was carrying the spacecraft
  • Total - total number of spacecraft launched to date
  • Flag - as above, "F" means this is a flagship school, "NF" indicates independent.
  • Repeat - indicates whether this school has flown more than one mission - meaning two or more distinct launches.  Note that the red "n" boxes do not indicate a problem with the school, but rather indicate where a school is only counted as having one mission despite having two launches.  (Typically, this occurs when there were multiple spacecraft on the same launch, or when the backup satellite was flown after an initial launch failure.)
  • Beep - the number of E-Class missions flown by this school (see above)
  • NotBeep - the number of S-, T- and C-class missions flown by this school
  • Act - indicates whether this school is still actively building university-class missions.  Several schools are no longer active as they transitioned to professional programs (e.g., KAIST, Toronto).
  • Last flight - the launch date of the last university-class mission from this school.

References and Papers

The work compiled here has been presented on several occasions, first to update the tables [when I wrote the first paper, there weren't even fifty satellites, and now there are well over one hundred] but also to consider other elements (flagships, reliability, missions).  Those papers are (from oldest to newest): 

References

I would not have made it very far in my study without these sites.