Sometimes thinking small can get you a big win. That’s certainly the case for a team of physicists at the University of Central Florida.

UCF was one of only two universities selected to prepare an experiment for a miniaturized satellite mission as part of NASA’s Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program. Twenty-two projects were reviewed and only two were selected for flight, including UCF’s Q-PACE project. The project is a milestone for UCF. It is the first time the university has been selected to design, build and operate a satellite from start to finish.

The Q-PACE project aims to gather scientific knowledge about the formation of planets, from the Earth to the growing number of “exoplanets”  discovered orbiting other stars.

Physics professor Joshua Colwell and his team of fellow researchers and students have been building space experiments for several years now and have gotten pretty good at it. They have put several experiments aboard Zero G flights and more recently on the International Space Station. The team has three other projects in the pipeline for commercial suborbital rockets.

“Yes, we’ve been busy,” Colwell said from the Center for Microgravity Research at UCF. “Q-PACE will simulate the very early solar system, when the particles that would eventually grow to become planets were no more than a few millimeters in size. The very gentle particle collisions that Q-PACE will study will also help NASA as it prepares to send astronauts to visit an asteroid with negligible gravity, much like the conditions in Q-PACE.”

The experiment builds on the knowledge gained from earlier research and can’t be duplicated on Earth with much success because of the need for little to no gravity to get accurate results. While one part of NASA and the commercial sector work on new big rockets to get man back into space, projects like those aboard the tiny satellites are becoming important in the quest to be ready to continue exploring the solar system.

“CubeSats are part of a growing technology that’s transforming space exploration,” said David Pierce, senior program executive for suborbital research at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “CubeSats are small platforms that enable the next generation of scientists and engineers to complete all phases of a complete space mission during their school career. While CubeSats have historically been used as teaching tools and technology demonstrations, today’s CubeSats have the potential to conduct important space science investigations as well.”

CubeSats are built to standard specifications of 1 unit (U), which is equal to 10x10x10 centimeters (about 4x4x4 inches). CubeSats can be 1U, 2U, 3U or 6U in size, weighing about 3 pounds per U. They often are launched into orbit as auxiliary payloads aboard rockets, significantly reducing costs.

Other participants on the UCF grant are: Postdoctoral Research Associate Julie Brisset, Assistant Professor Adrienne Dove and Electrical Engineer Doug Maukonen, all from UCF, as well as graduate and undergraduate students at UCF. Associate Professor of Engineering Larry Roe from the University of Arkansas is also a co-investigator, and Professor Jürgen Blum from the University of Braunschweig in Germany is a collaborator. The Florida Space Institute is supporting the project as well.

The grant is worth $415,000 and Colwell expects to have the experiment ready to go in about 18 months with a potential launch in 2017.