AFMC Command News

AFRL, NASA partner with 8 universities for new Mission Concept Program

  • Published
  • By Jessie Perkins
  • Air Force Research Laboratory

The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, and NASA announced their collaboration with eight universities for a new Mission Concept Program, or MCP, from Jan. 5 to Feb. 3, 2024. The program, sponsored by AFRL's Space Vehicles Directorate, is held under the University Nanosatellite Program, or UNP, which started in 1999 and has collaborated with over 40 universities since its inception.  

The program will partner with NASA’s CubeSat Launch initiative with joint efforts to alleviate typical high barriers to entry including full satellite development, aggressive cycles or schedules and competitive proposals, which will also prepare the participants for the next UNP nanosatellite cycle in 2024.  

AFRL staff will provide students with hands-on experience throughout the program in mission development and design. 

“As a former student of Michigan Tech, I participated in UNP from 2013-2018, and I can attest that the program will absolutely influence future generations of scientists and engineers for exciting careers in the aerospace industry and benefit everyone involved,” said Jesse Olson, UNP manager for AFRL’s small satellite branch, Space Vehicles Directorate.  

AFRL chose eight universities from across the U.S. to participate in the UNP’s new Mission Concept Program. The selected universities include: 

  1. Florida Institute of Technology, Florida. 

  1. University of the Virgin Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands. 

  1. University of South Florida, Florida. 

  1. University of New Mexico, New Mexico. 

  1. Missouri University of Science and Technology, Missouri. 

  1. New Mexico State University, New Mexico. 

  1. Columbia University, New York. 

  1. Tarleton State University, Texas. 

The University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and Tarleton State University are minority and Hispanic serving institutions. The University of the Virgin Islands is a historically black college and university and is participating in the UNP competition for the first time. Six of the universities are new to UNP, besides New Mexico State University and Missouri University of Science and Technology. Florida Institute of Technology, University of the Virgin Islands, University of South Florida and Tarleton State University are new to NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative. 

Each proposal was chosen for its educational impact, university impact, minority outreach and Department of Defense and NASA relevance. While all universities are encouraged to apply, the Mission Concept Program is aimed at helping universities overcome the learning curve when entering the field of small satellite development. 

Under UNP, the selected universities will work in collaboration with AFRL and NASA to develop nanosatellites, which are small satellites typically weighing less than 10 kilograms. The students will have the opportunity to gain practical experience in various aspects of satellite development, including systems engineering, mission design, feasibility analyses and satellite design.  

The UNP will provide access to state-of-the-art facilities, resources and expertise from AFRL, and mentor the students as they develop small satellite mission areas, including earth observation, communications and technology demonstration. 

"NASA's CubeSat Launch Initiative is proud to partner with the DOD's University Nanosatellite Program on the Mission Concept-1 Summer Program,” said Norman Phelps, NASA launch services program mission manager, CubeSat Launch Initiative. “This program will reduce the barrier of entry for university teams dipping into SmallSat and CubeSat development as mission concept-1 program participants are provided mentorship and guidance in systems engineering, small satellite and mission design concepts that will facilitate their participation in future UNP and CSLI cycles. Congratulations to all the participants, and we look forward to working with each of them — both now and hopefully in the future."  

Olson said he is looking forward to partnering with NASA and the universities. Approximately 5,000 college students and 40 institutions of higher learning have been involved in this unique experience since its inception in 1999 and the MCP will continue to help grow the UNP in a new way.  

"This program helps us support universities by providing hands-on experience to the students and fosters collaboration among academia, industry and government, driving DOD relevant technology in aerospace and space science," Olson added.

The UNP Mission Concept Program represents a significant milestone in advancing underrepresented universities and will provide hands-on experience in systems engineering, mission design, feasibility analyses and satellite design.  

Four students from each of the selected universities will have the opportunity to gain practical skills during a month-long intensive training session at Kirtland Air Force Base. They will be expected to pass along the knowledge to their individual teams and help each university develop a sustainable program, capable of future space missions and nanosat projects. The goal of the UNP will be to continue to provide a unique platform for collaboration between academia, industry, government and other DOD partners. 

“The Mission Concept Program includes a diverse set of students from the participating universities who will have the opportunity to work on real-world satellite projects and gain valuable skills that are in high demand in the aerospace and space industries," said Olson. “The program seeks to help new universities enter the field of small satellites by promoting interdisciplinary collaboration, sparking innovation and ultimately inspire the next generation of aerospace leaders.” 

For more information on the UNP and the Mission Concept Program visit

About AFRL 
The Air Force Research Laboratory 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