the Sky's Not the Limit

Building mini satellites. Designing next-level rockets. Witnessing a Mars landing. It's all in a day's work for these talented CSU students.


​California has been a​ hotbed of innovation in aerospace and defense since the 1940s. So it comes as little surprise that so many California State University faculty, students and alumni continue to​ play an important role in an industry that's not just critical to the state's economy but to the advancement of ​space exploration. Read on to learn about a few of the space-related projects at CSU campuses, each creating an essential pipeline for launching the next generation of space explorers.

Cal Poly’s student-built, pint-sized CubeSats are changing the way we research space.

Step into the PolySat Lab at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and you'll almost certainly spot shiny Rubik's Cube-like structures and cereal-box-sized models scattered around workspaces. These electronic boxes are actually miniature satellites called CubeSats. In spite of their relatively small size (they typically weigh less than 10 pounds), they're helping to transform the modern space race, and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is one of the universities where it all started.

First designed in the late 1990s as a way for students to get hands-on experience in building satellites for space research, the CubeSat standard (created by Cal Poly professor Jordi Puig-Suari and Stanford professor Bob Twiggs) is now used all over the world in both education and industry. CubeSats are regularly launched into orbit around the earth and beyond—usually hitching a ride on a rocket as part of a big satellite mission—where they collect data, take pictures and carry out much of what larger, much costlier satellites do.

Since Cal Poly SLO's student-run PolySat program began in 1999, teams have launched 10 CubeSats into space and continue to develop satellites in partnership with other universities, industry and government agencies.

“Being a part of PolySat has given me confidence that I am capable of building satellites and being a manager. I also got the opportunity to interact with people in industry at my dream jobs. It's been a great pathway into aerospace."

Arielle Cohen, PolySat lab manager and Cal Poly electrical engineering senior. After graduating in June 2019, Cohen will work for Northrop Grumman.

When it comes to student-built satellites, Cal Poly ranks among the top five universities in the world, says Amelia Greig, Ph.D., assistant professor of aerospace engineering at Cal Poly and a PolySat faculty advisor. “There are only a few other places in the U.S. with very active programs like Cal Poly," she notes. “But there's not a huge amount of universities that have done as many missions and have been going as long as we have."

Why are these little satellites such a big deal? “Because the CubeSat is smaller and cheaper to both build and launch, it has made space [research] accessible," explains Dr. Greig. “Universities can now build their own satellites…so it's opened space to more people."

4 Amazing Things CubeSats Can Do



MarCO, the first interplanetary CubeSat mission, made it possible for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to communicate with the InSight lander when it reached Mars in November 2018.

Learn about Marco


NASA's ASTERIA CubeSat is a mini space telescope in low Earth orbit that's searching for planets traveling in front of nearby bright stars.

Learn about asteria


NASA's Lunar Flashlight mission expects to send a CubeSat that will point lasers at the shaded polar regions of the moon to explore ice deposits.

Learn about the mission


The TechEdSat 8, designed by NASA and San José State University, is testing out ways for CubeSats to be returned to Earth (rather than burning up in the atmosphere), saving costs on space missions.

Learn about san jose state's work 

Taking Part in a History-Making Mission

PolySat assistant lab manager Justin Nguyen and lab aerospace engineer Cassandra Kraver were interning at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena when the Mars InSight landed on the red planet in November 2018. The Atlas V rocket that deployed the InSight lander also deployed two JPL-built CubeSats called MarCO-A and MarCO-B. Kraver and Nguyen were in the mission control room when the first transmissions were received from the first-ever interplanetary CubeSats: 

Play Meet Emily Video x

Student-Built Spacecraft: Small But Mighty

Student rocketry takes Cal Poly Pomona and CSU Long Beach students to new heights.

Humans have been experimenting with launching objects into the sky for millennia, and our fascination with rockets has yet to dim. And while at least one civilian amateur rocketry team has launched a rocket that reached space, no university team has done it yet. (For a rocket to officially reach space, it must ascend to an altitude of 330,000 feet, or 62 miles above Earth, crossing an invisible boundary called the Karman line. See "How High is Space?" below.)

“That tells you something," says Frank O. Chandler, Ph.D., assistant professor of aerospace at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and faculty advisor for the Liquid Rocketry Lab. “It's really hard to do!" But it's something that student rocketeers hope to accomplish eventually.

Difficult or not, students who work on building rockets, either through an academic or student-led program, gain valuable skills that can propel them into careers in aerospace and beyond.  

How High is Space?

Ever wonder where the Earth’s atmosphere ends and space begins? Hover over the dots below to learn more.



The exosphere is sometimes considered to be the upper limit of our atmosphere as it fades into deep outer space. There is no clear upper boundary, but some estimate it extends about 6,200 miles out.

Thermosphere (about 372 miles high)

This layer is where you’ll find low Earth orbit satellites, like CubeSats, and sometimes the International Space Station.

The Karman line (62 miles)

This is the invisible boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and “outer space,” at 62 miles or 330,000 feet up.

Mesosphere (about 53 miles high)

The mesosphere is where “near space” begins. This region is above where commercial airliners can fly but below orbiting satellites. Meteors burn up here.

Stratosphere (about 31 miles high)

Commercial airliners reach cruising altitude at about 35,000 feet, or 6.6 miles high, just into the Earth’s stratosphere (which avoids the turbulent weather of the troposphere). The ozone layer lives here.

Troposphere (0 to about 9 miles)

This first layer of Earth’s atmosphere is where nearly all weather conditions take place. (Mount Everest is about 5.5 miles high.)

Bronco 1, a more-than 15-foot-tall rocket, is fueled by a combination of liquid methane and liquid oxygen. Methane is the aerospace industry’s fuel of choice in the latest rocket designs.

Liquid-fueled rockets are generally more complex than solid-engine rockets. Liquid rockets require pumps, piping and pressure tanks and tend to perform more efficiently. Solid rockets generally cost less and are easier to store, explains Cal Poly Pomona aerospace student Eric Gonzalez. Courtesy of Cal Poly Pomona

"I just know these students are going to be quickly picked up. The industry is looking for students like this. I would absolutely hire a student who went through the rocketry program at Cal Poly Pomona. To train the next generation to be productive in the workforce—that is our real mantra here."

— Dr. Frank O. Chandler, assistant professor of aerospace, Cal Poly Pomona

The Cal Poly Pomona Liquid Rocketry Lab is divided into three key groups: the engine team, the launch vehicle (the rest of the rocket) and the mobile test stand (which allows testing while anchored to the ground). Courtesy of Cal Poly Pomona

When a rocket reaches its highest point, it’s called the apogee. This is when a small parachute will deploy to stabilize its descent. A large secondary parachute deploys when the rocket reaches about 1,000 feet from the ground so it can land gently and be re-used. Courtesy of Cal Poly Pomona

(Almost) Ready for Blast-off


Rachel Lauf

CSU Long Beach

Fourth-year aerospace engineering student

Team lead for CSULB's student-run Long Beach Rocketry which designs, builds and launches solid rockets to compete in NASA's annual Student Launch Competition


“Growing up in Montana, I would look up at night and see so many stars, just wondering what was out there. I wanted to be a part of exploring that … I just returned from this year's competition at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where we placed third for the payload design award. … I think a lack of experience tends to hold people back [from joining student project clubs]. If you can just get past that first step, go to that first club meeting, and show you are eager. These are the students we need—freshmen and sophomores who are excited to learn. We're always trying to bring in the next generation as the seniors move on."


Lauf plans to graduate in fall 2019 and will intern with Northrop Grumman in summer 2019.


Eric Gonzalez

Cal Poly Pomona

Fourth-year aerospace engineering student

Liquid engine systems lead for CPP's Liquid Rocketry Lab, which is building a rocket to qualify for the 2020 Friends of Amateur Rocketry (FAR)-Mars Launch Contest


“The leadership and project experiences I have gained from the Liquid Rocketry Lab have given me confidence during job interviews. It's the first big leadership role I've had… We're the first wave of students who initially established the program [as it transitioned from student-led to academic program], so it's very personal to us. It's who we are. We spend a lot of time and we work really hard. We're learning by doing and we make mistakes. We learn from those mistakes…  We've seen considerable growth in just one year. A lot of underclassmen have joined already—they come to school knowing about it."


After graduating in May 2019, Gonzalez will work for Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale, California.


Mark Murphy

Cal Poly Pomona

Fourth-year aerospace engineering student

Launch vehicle chief systems engineer for CPP's Liquid Rocketry Lab, which is building a rocket to qualify for the 2020 Friends of Amateur Rocketry (FAR)-Mars Launch Contest


“I enjoy seeing the mentor-mentee relationships between the upper and lower classmen—it's a culture we're trying to foster in the lab. It's the best way to achieve a long-term lab—you have to have a way to pass on the knowledge to the younger generation… I would recommend it to any engineering student. It prepares you so well for what you might do post-college… On launch days, you're usually kind of sleep-deprived because you've stayed up really late the night before. It's this weird anxious feeling… the rocket either goes up, or it blows up… but once it leaves the launch rail and then we see the main parachute deploy, there's nothing that can go wrong. That's when everyone starts to have a good time."  


Murphy plans to graduate in fall 2019, when he'll pursue a career in aerodynamics or structural analysis in aerospace.

Launching a Career in Aerospace

Hands-on project experiences like building rockets and designing mini satellites set CSU students up for career success. The ability to work in a hierarchical lab environment, manage project timelines and see a project through from start to finish are just a few of the transferrable skills students gain.

Cal Poly Pomona’s Dr. Chandler says the aerospace industry currently has a huge need for new engineering hires—both the big companies like Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, as well as newer players like Blue Origin, SpaceX and Vector.

Here are some of the majors putting CSU students on the right trajectory:

  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Computer Engineering
  • Computer Science
  • Electrical Engineering
  • Industrial Engineering
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Software Engineering

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