NASA Awards $30K To CU Boulder In Third Round Of Cube Quest Challenge

The University of Colorado Boulder CU Earth Escape Explorer (CU-E3) team. Image Credit: CU Boulder/NASA/Cube Quest Challenge

The University of Colorado Boulder CU Earth Escape Explorer (CU-E3) team. Image Credit: CU Boulder/NASA/Cube Quest Challenge

October 27, 2016 – A University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) student team has been awarded $30,000 in the latest round of NASA’s Cube Quest Challenge, a design competition for small satellites. As one of the top five teams in Ground Tournament-3, the team of graduate students will continue developing the CU Earth Escape Explorer (CU-E3) CubeSat and may be selected to launch on NASA’s SLS/Orion Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), slated for 2018.

CU-E3 is being designed as part of the Aerospace Engineering Science Graduate Projects Class taught by Professor Scott Palo. While the team is made up primarily of aerospace engineering students, other majors are encouraged to enroll. The CU-E3 team members have a unique and diverse background ranging from all fields of engineering, professional experience, and military satellite operations. Professionals from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) and faculty in the CU Boulder Aerospace Engineering Sciences department serve as mentors. Students in the course have previously executed two CubeSat missions from proposal to launch, and have a third CubeSat ready to launch in early 2017.

CU’s graduate aerospace engineering program is considered one of the best in the country, ranking No. 8 in the nation and No. 5 among public institutions whose highest degree is a doctorate, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Cube Quest is part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program to drive progress in aerospace technology and encourage broad-based participation in aerospace research and development. The challenges help find the most innovative solutions to technical challenges through competition and cooperation.

“We continue to be impressed as these teams refine and advance their technologies as we edge closer to the in-space phases of this challenge,” said Monsi Roman, program manager for Centennial Challenges, which is managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “They are forging new ways ahead that will lead to big advancements inside these tiny satellite explorers.”

The challenge and prize purse are divided into three major areas:

Ground Tournaments: $500,000 in the four qualifying ground tournaments to determine who will have the ability to fly on the first Orion/SLS flight;

Lunar Derby: $1.5 million for demonstrating communication and CubeSat durability at a distance greater than almost 2.5 million miles (4,000,000 km) — 10 times the distance from the Earth to the moon; and

Deep Space Derby: $3 million for demonstrating the ability to place a CubeSat in a stable lunar orbit and demonstrate communication and durability near the moon.

The four Ground Tournaments serve as progress checks, allowing participants to gain hands-on experience designing, building and delivering a flight-qualified small satellite capable of advanced functions near the moon and beyond. The Lunar and Deep Space Derbies will help develop propulsion systems for small spacecraft and provide innovative solutions for deep space communications.

New teams may still join the Cube Quest Challenge, but must compete in the fourth and final Ground Tournament to be eligible to participate in the in-space competitions.

After the final Ground Tournament in February 2017, three teams will be selected to launch their CubeSats on EM-1. The winning satellites will then compete in the Lunar Derby.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Littleton, Colorado, is the prime contractor for the Orion spacecraft on which the winning CubeSats will ride. During EM-1, the Space Launch System (SLS) will launch the Orion spacecraft to a stable orbit beyond the moon to demonstrate the integrated system performance of Orion and the SLS rocket prior to the first crewed flight.

In total, there will be thirteen CubeSats flying as secondary payloads on EM-1. The CubeSats will be deployed following Orion separation from the upper stage of the rocket, and once Orion is a safe distance away. Each payload will be ejected with a spring mechanism from dispensers on the Orion stage adapter. Following deployment, the transmitters on the CubeSats will turn on, and ground stations will listen for their beacons to determine the functionality of these small satellites.


“Small satellites, including CubeSats, are helping NASA advance scientific and human exploration, reduce the cost of new space missions, and expand access to space,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of the Space Technology Mission Directorate. “They also allow an effective and efficient means to engage students and citizen scientists in all phases of satellite development and operations through real-world, hands-on research and development experience on NASA-funded rideshare launch opportunities like EM-1.”

Projects like CU-E3 are important for exciting the next generation of engineers, rocket scientists and astronauts and provide invaluable real-world experience. Colorado employs more aerospace workers per capita than any other state and through the Cube Quest Challenge, students gain marketable skills and meet prospective employers.

The state of Colorado has a particularly supportive environment in which aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin, Ball Aerospace, United Launch Alliance and Sierra Nevada Corporation give financial and hardware support, as well as mentorship and networking opportunities. For this project, Northrup-Grumman provided an initial $10,000 to support CU-E3 and Blue Canyon Technologies (BCT), a small satellite company founded by CU Boulder alumni, is developing the satellite body.

If CU Boulder wins the Cube Quest Challenge, the team plans to develop a perpetual endowment that will be used to fund future University of Colorado SmallSat missions.

The Top Five Teams In Ground Tournament-3:

  • Team Miles – Fluid & Reason, Tampa, Florida (placed 1st in GT-1 and fifth in GT-2)

  • Cislunar Explorers – Cornell University, Ithaca, New York (placed third in GT-1 and first in GT-2)

  • CU-E3 – University of Colorado Boulder (placed fourth in GT-2)

  • KitCube – Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts (placed second in both GT-1 and GT-2)

  • SEDS Triteia – University of California, San Diego (placed third in GT-2)

  • Seven teams competed in this third round. Teams were judged on their spacecraft and mission designs on a point scale of 0 to 5, where 5 exceeds expectations, and for the highest likelihood of achievement of stated competition goals.

    For more information about the Cube Quest Challenge, visit: