UT Satellite Destroyed in Antares Explosion [Watch]

This Tuesday was a nondescript evening for many on campus, but not for the 30 or so engineering students who had a hand in the tiny satellite they called RACE. Their creation, which culminated in 18 months of hard work, was about to be launched into space, as part of the Antares rocket.

Huddled together with their advisor, UT engineering professor Glenn Lightsey, they watched with bated breath as Antares lifted off the ground, until … it halted in midair. A bright orange blaze filled the television screen and huge plumes of smoke followed. Their work, it would seem, was for naught. No one said a word for what felt like minutes.

“Everyone is looking at the screen trying to understand what’s happening and then it kind of sinks in,” Lightsey says. “This is just a part of the space industry.”

The cause of the explosion is still being investigated. RACE, which stands for Radiometer Atmospheric Cubesat Experiment, was created in collaboration with NASA with the intention of measuring water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Created in the students’ spare time, RACE was a passion project. “You come in on weekends and they are here. You come in on holidays and they are here,” Lightsey says. “They really see the value of what they are doing and they are really motivated by it.”

One of three students at the launch, senior Parker Francis had a front-row seat to the unfortunate spectacle.

“A few seconds in, I saw a secondary flair. I thought that was kind of strange, and at that point it was clear it wasn’t going up anymore,” says Francis, who was the mechanical and integration lead for the project. “Your heart kind of sinks and the sound takes a second or two to get where you are.”

Still, there’s always a real possibility that something like this could happen. Lightsey notes that during a launch, anything is possible.

“We don’t know in advance that the outcome is going to be successful,” Lightsey says. “We accept that risk as part of being a participant in the real activity of space exploration. Luckily there was no loss of life.”

Macon Vining, BS ’14, a scientific robotic spaceflight professional and former spacecraft integration lead for RACE, was watching from a conference room with his coworkers. Like Francis, he immediately knew something was wrong.

“There was one point where there was a lot more orange on the screen than there should have been,” Vining says. “At that point it was just silent in the room. I didn’t really know what to say.”

Though the launch into space is never guaranteed, when you spend long days and nights on a project, you don’t expect it to fail.

“The most dangerous part of my day is my commute to work, right?” Vining says with a laugh. “Well, for satellites it’s not much different. Launch is something that we’ve done hundreds of times, but there’s always something that can go wrong.”

“You think, ‘Not my rocket. There’s no way that’s going to happen to us,'” Francis says of working tirelessly on a project that has the potential to burst into flames. “It runs through your mind, but you ignore it.”

Though their 18 months of hard work disappeared in a matter of seconds, Lightsey and his students are not deterred by this setback. They were working on two other projects while completing RACE, and both are set to launch in the next year.

“We could all turn away from aerospace,” Francis says, “but we are stronger than that, and more passionate than that. This mission was taken away from us, but it won’t prevent us from pushing on and getting important scientific missions out there.”

Lightsey sees the same determination in the rest of his students.

“Regardless of the outcome of this mission, we are going to continue on and I think all of our students share that belief,” he says. “Onward and upward.”

 

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