Small satellite, big mission

UB one of 10 universities selected by AFRL to participate in prestigious satellite program

Photo of two students in the Nanosat Lab.

Student leaders of the Polarimetric Observer Light Analyzing Research (POLAR) mission include Chet Knoer (left), a PhD student in aerospace engineering and the project’s graduate student supervisor, and Charles Dicus (right), a junior engineering science major and POLAR’s chief engineer.

By Nicole Capozziello

Published February 7, 2022

Students in UB’s Nanosatellite Laboratory will compete for a new mission this spring, as part of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s University Nanosatellite Program (UNP).

“I'm excited about so many things on the POLAR project, but mainly that it is a way for the lab to take what we have learned on previous missions and put it to use on this one. ”
Chet Knoer
PhD student and POLAR graduate student supervisor

Named the Polarimetric Observer Light Analyzing Research (POLAR) mission, the students will investigate space debris, a growing issue in Earth’s orbit.

The University at Buffalo, which partnered with Rochester Institute of Technology, was one of 10 schools chosen to participate in the two-year UNP partnership to design, fabricate and test small satellites.

“The POLAR mission will provide details on the material makeup of debris,” says John Crassidis, Samuel P. Capen Chair Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and advisor to the UB Nanosatellite Lab (UBNL). “This will allow us to develop more detailed models to better predict the location of debris as the travel in orbit, which will lead better calculations to help avoid collisions with other objects.”

The UNP program aims to not only do novel research that can contribute to the potential of small satellites, but to grow the educational institution to space industry pipeline. 

“Throughout the two-year program, student participants will design, fabricate, and test a small satellite,” says Col. Eric Felt, director of the AFRL Space Vehicles Directorate. “We also hope to foster research in enabling technologies, and the design of experiments that can be performed by small satellites in orbit. We are helping to develop the pipeline for the burgeoning space industry.”

For students in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the opportunity to work on a satellite that will launch into space is unparalleled, as are the connections and hands-on experience they gain.

“What makes our project unique is that the main goal of our mission is not only to detect resident space objects, but also determine their material makeup,” says Chet Knoer, a PhD student in aerospace engineering and the project’s graduate student supervisor.

Knoer has been involved in UBNL since coming to UB to earn an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering. They went on to a master’s in material design innovation and are starting on their PhD this semester. 

Knoer says, “I'm excited about so many things on the POLAR project, but mainly that it is a way for the lab to take what we have learned on previous missions and put it to use on this one. For the undergraduates, this is an opportunity to start fresh. For me, it’s a chance to pass on the systems engineering knowledge I gained from working outside of the classroom.”

“I am looking forward to having the chance to do the framing of a project rather than working within the framework that someone else had created,” says Charles Dicus, a junior engineering science major and POLAR’s chief engineer. 

For the last few years, he worked on the Ground Systems Team for the GLint Analyzing Data Observation Satellite (GLADOS) mission, which ran from 2011 to 2020 and was UBNL’s longest-running project. “I relish the opportunity to help make important decisions – and do it in such a way that everyone who contributes throughout the duration of the project can understand why and how they were made, and how they fit into the general process.” 

POLAR, like all projects in the UBNL, will rely entirely on the dedication of students. Knoer says, “We really need volunteers for this project to be successful, and we encourage students with all levels of experience (even no experience) to join. We provide training, and we are a super fun lab with students from a huge range of backgrounds.” 

To join or learn more, students can send an email, check out the ELN portal or UB Nanosat Lab webpage or stop by the lab at 333 Hochstetter Hall. 

About AFRL

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space, and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit: