Puerto Rico’s first satellite being built for UCF mission


University of Puerto Rico electrical engineering students were at the University of Central Florida this week learning how to build the island’s first spacecraft. It’s a milestone for the U.S. territory and for the students, who returned to class a year ago without power on campus or lab access after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico.

UCF hosted two Inter-American University of Puerto Rico electrical engineering students and their professor, Amilcar Rincon Charris, this week as they began building a tiny satellite, known as a CubeSat.

Charris and his students, Alexander Matta and Gabriel Cascante, both 22, are building the PR-CuNaR2 satellite for Florida Space Institute research scientist Dr. Julie Brisset’s mission to study collisions between particles in space and how planets form.

Brisset, who specializes in early planet formation,  said that planets formed from dust particles sticking together, but eventually, when the particle size increases, the particles bounce off each other, creating the question: At what speed, size and shape did particles begin forming asteroids and then planets?

PR-CuNaR2 ​​​​will hold particles and collect data on their behavior in microgravity, helping to answer that question.

The satellite will be the first Puerto Rican satellite ever launched and is scheduled for liftoff in 2020. The ride to space is paid for by NASA’s CubeSat launch initiative, which allows schools, universities and nonprofit participants to launch their spacecraft, which are smaller than a shoebox, and conduct research in the vacuum of space. The spacecraft hardware is funded through Puerto Rico space grants, said Rincon.

Two more UCF experiments in CubeSats are slated to launch independently as part of the NASA program this year,  on Virgin Orbit and United Launch Alliance rockets.

Because UCF has experience building CubeSats, the UPR students spent time at the Florida Space Institute building learning techniques and exchanging ideas to make Puerto Rico’s first spacecraft a success.

“They are already in the latest stages of developing a CubeSat and we’re in the early ones, so we’re getting some tips and learning from UCF,” Cascante said, adding that they want to do the best job they can for Puerto Rico’s first satellite.

The benefit, Brisset said, is that UCF gets to do more science by partnering with UPR on CubeSat missions.

“When you partner up with someone, then this other entity … does part of the work and so it relieves you of some of the work, and you can be part of many more projects,” Brisset said.

It’s also a good chance for UCF and UPR students to learn from each other. One UCF student recently visited the UPR CubeSat lab.

“It’s a great opportunity to communicate, to get to see how this university is and how this other lab in Puerto Rico is. Also, culturally, it’s very important,” Brisset said.

Rincon and 15 of his students have been working on the project since August 2017, but were delayed due to Hurricane Maria.

The University of Puerto Rico CubeSat lab is now back open for the task after the hurricane significantly damaged buildings, including the lab, last year. The university paid for repairs and is still awaiting reimbursement, Rincon​​​​​​​ said.

Besides the damage to crucial facilities on campus, the university also lost about 500 of its 4,000 students after the storm. Universities on the mainland, including UCF, offered displaced students in-state tuition, scooping up students and allowing them to finish their degrees. Rincon said many students and some faculty members have not come back due to the lack of housing. He hopes they will return.

Matta, who lives on the north part of the island, lost the roof on his home after it collapsed during Hurricane Maria. His family went until Dec. 22 without power, he said, calling it an “early
Christmas present” when electricity was finally restored. He went until April without internet access, which is critical to a university student hoping to one day work for Boeing or SpaceX.

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