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West Virginia's first spacecraft exceeds expectations after first year in orbit

West Virginia's first spacecraft marked one year in orbit. Developers said the mission of STF-1...
West Virginia's first spacecraft marked one year in orbit. Developers said the mission of STF-1 exceeded expectations. (Photo: WDTV)(WDTV)
Published: Dec. 19, 2019 at 5:54 PM EST
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It's made about 5,500 orbits around the earth since its launch. After a complete year in orbit, developers say it's exceeded the mission's initial expectations.

It's West Virginia's first spacecraft, the satellite Simulation to Flight-1 (STF-1).

It was developed by several West Virginians who are part of NASA's team in Fairmont.

Scott Zemerick is the project manager for STF-1.

"You never know what's going to happen in space," Zemerick said. "Anything can happen. Anything can go wrong. To say we've been in space for one year is pretty remarkable."

STF-1 performs four science experiments led by WVU researchers. Their hope is the research will support future NASA missions.

The entire satellite is small but mighty. It's about the size of a loaf of bread. Developers didn't initially expect it to function at the level it is one year later.

Between 2000 and 2016, more than 41 percent of all small satellites launched failed or partially failed, according to a NASA report.

STF-1's initial mission was set for three months.

Matt Grubb is STF-1's lead engineer. He said his team knew if the satellite made it into space, it would have a successful mission. By now, he said, the team expected it to essentially be dead from radiation.

Instead, it remains completely operational.

"Knowing the failure rate of small satellites, in general, coming into this actually drove us to make sure we checked every box we could to make sure this was 100% successful," Grubb said.

Researchers and developers communicate with the satellite from a computer as it passes over West Virginia about twice a day. They collect data and photos taken from the satellite.

STF-1 was a cost-efficient $900,000 to produce, developers said. $200,000 was spent on materials. Much of the rest went toward labor costs.

When it was initially launched into orbit on December 16, 2018, it took a few days before the team could begin communicating with the satellite.

They made their first connection with their prized creation on December 19.

"I think ecstatic would describe the feeling in the room," Grubb said. "We were really happy."

Zemerick couldn't contain his excitement in that moment.

"I was jumping up and down and fist-pumping," Zemerick said. "To actually hear from it for the first time was huge."

The team made up of several native West Virginians hopes they serve as an example to other Mountaineers of the opportunities available in their own back yard.

"Looking up and knowing there's a satellite above you that's yours, I don't have words to describe it," Grubb said. "It's an opportunity I never thought I would have. It's something I hope it's an opportunity now that people in the state will see what we do have in the state.

The team hopes this is only the beginning for West Virginia satellites in space.

They now move forward with creating their next satellite while monitoring STF-1.