AubieSat-1 Case Study

What is AubieSat-1?

AubieSat-1 was the first ever, Auburn University student built cube satellite to be accepted by NASA for launch. The satellite is a “cubesat”, a 4-inch, cube-shaped satellite used primarily for research. It was launched into space at 2:48 a.m. PDT on October 28th, 2011 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on a NASA-sponsored Delta II rocket.

The research goal of AubieSat-1 was to study the decrease of solar cell efficiency over time in protected and non-protected solar panels. The satellite sent back data that included temperature and voltage levels which were then processed and analyzed at the campus control center.

What was the problem?

Once the satellite was deployed and had been tracked by multiple universities and individual radio operators, the AubieSat team tried to communicate with it. Something was not working adequately because the team had problems making contact with the satellite. The original design of AubieSat-1 included two deployable antennae —one for receiving and one for transmitting data— but they failed to deploy when released into space. The signal transmitter at the campus control center did not have enough power to generate a strong enough signal. A stronger signal was needed if they were going to establish communication with the satellite.

How was it solved?

Some members of the AubieSat team then travelled to Montana State University and borrowed their signal transmitter, which had enough power to communicate with the satellite. This enabled the team to send the appropriate commands and retrieve the data they needed.

Lessons learned:

1. Keep it simple!

Though the deployable antennae rated high on the “coolness” scale, a more simple design would have been more appropriate (and effective) for this project. Simpler solutions tend to be less prone to errors. Also, a design that seems great on paper (and works well in controlled conditions) might not be that great in real-life situations.

2. Plan for errors!

More often than not, things don’t work out as planned. A contingency plan is needed for when things fail to go as expected. A detailed plan can help the team respond quickly to any problems that arise and that can be the difference between a failed or a successful mission.

3. Build a strong network of collaboration with other people and institutions.

The AubieSat-1 team built a powerful network of collaboration with individual radio operators and other universities that helped, first, to track the satellite after deployment, and second, to communicate with it when things went wrong. The collaboration relationship between Auburn and Montana State enabled the team to use Montana State’s equipment. Without it, the mission could have failed.

Related AAQ modules:

1. Quality Planning

Poor quality planning leads to higher costs, errors and potential mission failure. A team that has a “quality mindset” is more successful, even when things go wrong!


FMEA is a useful technique for detecting, documenting and preventing potential errors. It also allows us to plan in case things fail to work as intended.

3. System Engineering

System Engineering gives us a holistic view of a project, from its design to its deployment. A project developed using a system engineering approach will not only have a higher probability of success, but will also enable future teams to build on the experiences of previous ones.