Transfer of knowledge

Three years into the project, the original students were graduating from their programs, leaving the team trying to come up with a system for transferring the knowledge to the next generation of students working on the project. Until this point, there was no culture of documenting processes among team members.

“That was one of the biggest challenges and lessons learned from the project. We got better as years passed,” said Dan Alvarez, ADCS (attitude determination and control system) and operations leader of the project, who started on the project as an undergraduate student. 

“Usually the way we made it work was that students would work on the CubeSat for their last year of university. During the first half of that last year, they would work on research and whatever they had to do for their respective research projects or subsystems, and the second semester they would continue working on that, but they would also meet with the incoming team for the next year to start to pass on the new information and let them know what the next steps were.

“We started to create a lot of internal documentation where we talked about every subsystem that was being developed.”

The method the team adopted is now routinely taught at UVG.

The team was trying to develop a sensor with four light filters, which were selected to capture chlorophyll-a concentrations with remote sensing. The team ran out of time to finish the coding, but the satellite was still able to position one filter, capture the images and return the carousel of filters to the initial position.

Fighting a stigma 

Throughout the project, the team was fighting against a stigma of failure they say is prevalent in Guatemala.

“In Guatemalan culture, failure is a real issue, so fighting against the thoughts of failure was the hardest part, but when we started just letting go and working on things, I think that’s when magic happened and that’s why we had a satellite in space,” Bagur said.

Luis Zea, co-director of the project, described their strategies for fighting that mindset in the community.

“One of the ways we tried to combat the stigma around failing was just trying to communicate to people, particularly the people of Guatemala in general, what we were doing and how hard it was and how valuable and interesting it was in the simplest terms possible,” Zea said. “The main thing we did with that was the publications in the newspaper about the project. We really tried with those short articles to give people a general sense of what we were doing.”

After winning the KiboCUBE award, the U.S. embassy in Guatemala provided funds to bring CubeSat experts to Guatemala to check the team’s design and final integration of the CubeSat. Those professionals helped the team gain perspective.

“The big lesson that most of the people who came gave us was that failing was just an integral part of the process and failing said nothing about you personally, just about how hard the problem you have to solve is. Trying to get that into our minds was a very important step towards not giving up,” Alvarez said.

Nationwide celebrations

By the time Quetzal-1 launched in 2020, the whole country had been following along with its story in the newspaper for two years.

“There were a lot of people here in Guatemala that were really happy about it,” Bagur said. “I’m so impressed because there were bars where they put the launch on their TVs. In Guatemala something like that is unique. It was one of the best days of my life. It was really cool. Watching the rocket reaching out to space was a magical moment, and it was one of the greatest moments in Guatemalan scientific history so far.”

Quetzal-1 launched to the International Space Station in March 2020 and stayed there until April 2020, when it was deployed. An hour after deployment, the team saw the first information being transmitted and knew the CubeSat worked. It was operational in space for 211 days.

Gone are the days of students working in the cafeteria of their university. UVG now has an aerospace lab and infrastructure in place so students can carry out similar projects. On a national level, policy discussions are underway due in part to this project. 

Interplanetary Initiative’s CubeSat Delivery Prize

The team was awarded $7,500 through the ASU Interplanetary Initiative’s CubeSat Delivery Prize award thanks to the generosity of the Shojaee Foundation. The prize money will be the first funds for Quetzal-2 and will likely go to the solar panels for the next project.

Sally Young

Senior Communications Specialist, Interplanetary Initiative