ThinSat Program

Virginia Space, in partnership with Northrop Grumman, NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Twiggs Space Lab, and NearSpace Launch (NSL), has created a low-cost, short-term program to increase student engagement and interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) related fields. 

Lead institutions are invited into the program with the primary objective of being mentors to the STEM outreach schools within their regions. This allows for following schools to build a working relationship with the lead institutions’ professors and students.

Through the use of ThinSats, a small satellite capable of transmitting data from Extreme Low Earth Orbit (ELEO), students from grades 4-12 to the university level can assist and develop satellite hardware, test sensor components with low and high-altitude balloon flights, analyze data, and launch an actual payload into space. Through Virginia Space's partnership with Northrop Grumman, ThinSats fly as secondary payloads aboard the Antares rocket, reducing cost and increasing launch availability.





What is a ThinSat? 

ThinSats are picosatellites with dimensions of 11.1 x 11.4 x 1.25 cm and a mass of approximately 280g.  They are a specially designed tool for education and in-orbit data collection. Smaller satellites reduce the cost and size constraints of traditional satellites while still providing the opportunity to explore outer space.


ThinSat Quick Facts:

  • Roughly the size of a slice of bread
  • Charges via solar panels
  • Utilizes a small battery during orbit for power
  • Has an approximate 5-day orbit lifetime
  • No space debris after ThinSat de-orbit
  • Single satellite with simple mission

ThinSats are connected by articulating fanfolds to form “strings” and together these individual strings form the larger ThinSat constellation. Shortly after deployment, the satellites begin transmitting data. Each ThinSat transmits health and safety packets along with sensor readings and any custom packet information. All data is sent to the Space Data Dashboard, where students monitor their satellites. By the end of the program, students have gone from initial idea, to build phase, to launching a satellite into space.



NG-15 Mission

A total of 30 ThinSats will be launched into low earth orbit on February 20 at 12:36 p.m. as part of Northrop Grumman’s NG-15 mission. ThinSats will deploy 818 and 828 seconds (approximately 13 minutes and 42 seconds) after launch at approximately 12:49 p.m. Health pings are expected at approximately 878 seconds (14 minutes and 42 seconds) after launch at approximately 12:50 p.m. Data downloads are expected 30 seconds after H&S.

Lead Instutution School Name  Location
Adler Planetarium   IL
  Wilbur Wright Community College IL
American University   DC
  Saint Elizabeth School DC
  Woodson High School DC
Clemson University   SC
  Midway Elementary SC
  Crozier Middle School / Inglewood Library CA
Eastern Florida State College   FL
  Devine Mercy FL
  Cambridge Elementary School FL
Eastern Shore CC   VA
  Snow Hill Middle School MD
George Mason University   VA
  Thomas Jefferson High School VA
  Chantilly Academy VA
George Washington University   DC
  Oak Grove High School DC
  School Without Walls DC
Northrop Grumman Schools    
  Bishop O'Connell High School VA
Old Dominion University   VA
  Norview High School VA
  Larchmont Elementary School VA
  Lindenwood Elementary School VA
Princeton University   NJ
  Princeton Day School NJ
  Princeton High School NJ
  Montgomery High School NJ
Salisbury University   MD
  Parkside High School MD
  Salisbury Middle School MD
  Worcester Prep School MD
  Bennet High School MD
University of Virginia   VA
  Charlottesville High School VA
  Western Albemarle High School VA
  The Village School VA
United States Coast Guard Academy   CT
United States Naval Academy   MD
Virginia Military Institute   VA
  Rockbridge County High School VA
Virginia Tech   VA
William and Mary   VA
  Godwin High School VA
  Steward School VA
Wise County Schools   VA
  Eastside High VA
  St Paul Elementary VA
  Bland County High School VA
  LF Addington Middle School VA
  Northwood Middle School VA
  Lee High School VA
  Ridgeview High School VA
  Castlewood High School VA
  Fairmont State University WV
NSL Schools    
  Career Academy IN
  University of Minnesota MN
  Taylor University IN



NG-15 Outreach School Satellite Custom Payloads:


Old Dominion University

  • The goal of the ODU team is to extend the working lifetime of the payload by adding thermal insulation. This insulation will resist the heat generated by friction in the atmosphere. 


Project Highlights:

  • Lengthen ThinSat life during re-entry
  • Develop platform for surface temperature sensor implementation
  • Improve data collection and communication capabilities
  • Provide support and education for partner Norfolk Public Schools


Princeton University


  • The mission of MEMSat is to study the comparative on-orbit performance of 2 MEMS (microelectromechanical) IMUs (inertial measurement units).

Project Highlights:

  • Comparison of two different microelectromechanical IMUs (MEMS) while in orbit
  • MEMS are increasingly popular in aerospace applications
  • One of the first on-flight comparisons of two different MEMS units




  • The mission objective of ProtoSat is to test the space-worthiness of several circuit fabrication methods. The verification of these circuits will impact future student missions.

Project Highlights:

  • Comparison of three distinct fabrication methods: Voltera, CNC-milled, and BiscuitBoard
  • If successful, this approach to developing flight hardware will be highly applicable to students
  • Cheap and effective methods to producing critical PCB components for student satellites
  • PCB Board Types:
    • Voltera: A 3D printed circuit board machine.
    • CNC-milled: A low-cost method to milling PCBs on a CNC machine
    • BiscuitBoard: A solderless PCB 


George Mason University

  • The mission of the GMU Asteria payload is to test a battery box with different types of thermal shielding and compare the relative effectiveness of two power handling architectures. Experimenting with using different power generation methods on a ThinSat.

Project Highlight

  • Used simulations to ensure that the machined parts could survive launch and deployment conditions.
  • The efficiency under temperature change, isolation level, and satellite spin will all be evaluated.
  •  The payload will also compare two different power architectures, Direct Energy Transfer and Maximum Power Point Tracking.



Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

  • The VT ThickSat is a larger ThinSat experimental vehicle with an integrated carbon fiber boom arm that uses the ThinSat architecture. Students will deliver preliminary data to show the effectiveness of the onboard imagining system for the future ACS3 CubeSat mission.

Project Highlights:

  • NASA organized mission to study boom actions in zero-gravity environment.
  • Evaluate the on-orbit performance of the onboard imaging system.
  • Using imaging system to measure the deployment of a high strain composite boom.
  • Verify the imaging process works with a variety of backgrounds.



Salisbury University

  • The purpose of the Salisbury University mission is to take measurements of the magnetic field using an IMU (BNO55 9DoF) sensor as well as using an RGB light sensor to detect increases in red light.


Project Highlights:

  • Find evidence of charged particles disturbing the Earth's magnetic field in the lower Thermosphere caused by Tropospheric weather.
  • Collect information on Aurora STEVE (Strong Thermal Emissions Velocity Enhancement)
  • Using data parsing to fill in any holes in collected data



Taylor University

  • The purpose of the Taylor University mission is to measure and validate satellite tumble rate, teach students processing and sequence of software, and gain ELEO flight experience with a Parallax Propeller processor.

Project Highlights

  • Provided real-life software and engineering analysis and development opportunities
  • Preparing students for work environments
  • Experiment with new methods of detecting tumble rates in a ThinSat string


Student Engagment:

Each ThinSat mission spans the length of approximately one school year and incorporates three phases. During these phases, students are introduced to satellite sensors and the engineering iterative process.

Phase 1: Introduction of sensors and development of a sensor-board called the FlatSat. Students conduct flight operations and launch a low-altitude balloon with the FlatSat attached as a data transmitting payload. Students collect and analyze data. 

Phase 2:  Students develop a payload representative of the final product and integrate it with a 3D printed Engineering Model of the ThinSat, which will allow for realistic ThinSat testing and verification of data transmission. The engineering models are sent to a centralized location for a high-altitude balloon flight.

Phase 3: The Standard ThinSat has a predetermined sensor array, mirroring the sensors available in phase 1 and 2, built into the payload.  Students who build custom ThinSats use Phase 2 data and finalize theirpayload design for orbit. This payload is then sent to Twiggs Space Lab for testing before being integrated into a Containerized Satellite Dispenser (CSD) by NearSpace Launch and prepared for launch.  The ThinSats are deployed during a Northrop Grumman cargo resupply mission to the ISS. They are released from the second stage of the Antares rocket into Extreme Low Earth Orbit (ELEO) at 200-250km, transmitting data for approximately five days before de-orbit and burning up on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. 



Anatomy of an Antares Launch


Contact: For more information on the ThinSat Program, please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.