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Artist's impression of CatSat with its antenna inflated in orbit around Earth. To compensate for any small leaks it may incur from encounters with space debris or micrometeorites, the engineers provided it with enough gas onboard to completely refill the "balloon" 25 times.

Student-built satellite uses 'beach ball' for an antenna

CatSat is a small satellite carrying a new communications concept – an inflatable antenna – into space. The project provides a rare opportunity for students at the University of Arizona to get hands-on experience with spaceflight technology.

The project began in 2019 when Chris Walker, a UArizona professor of astronomy, along with a team of faculty members from other departments, submitted a proposal to NASA as part of the NASA CubeSat Launch Initiative. NASA saw potential and agreed to provide a launch vehicle for CatSat.

"The technology demonstrated by CatSat opens the door to the possibility of future lunar, planetary and deep-space missions using CubeSats," said Walker, who also is the co-founder of FreeFall Aerospace. "CatSat puts the University of Arizona at the forefront of these efforts."

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