By Tyler Allen

The first satellite built at Montana State University’s Space Science and Engineering Lab crashed into the Kazakhstani desert aboard a Russian rocket in 2006 before it reached space. The second met the same fate in the Pacific Ocean in 2011, onboard NASA’s Taurus XL launch vehicle.

Despite the discouraging start, the Bozeman, Montana-based lab has since hitchhiked three satellites on two successful launches, and the instruments are now collecting data on space weather in the Earth’s magnetic field.

MSU was already world renowned for solar and astrophysics research when two former Lockheed Martin employees – Drs. Loren Acton and David Klumpar – opened the SSEL lab in 2000.

The SSEL’s first success in space was the 2011 launch of HRBE, followed by two FIREBIRD satellites in 2013. Although their names are long (FIREBIRD stands for Focused Investigations of Relativistic Electron Burst Intensity Range and Dynamics, and HRBE is Hiscock Radiation Belt Explorer), these miniature CubeSats are only 10-15 centimeters in size.

Once PrintSat – which the lab built using 3D printing technology – and two more FIREBIRD missions are launched in late 2014, MSU will have six satellites sending information back to antennae atop its Cobleigh Hall, and to HAM radio operators worldwide.

Scientists use this data to study space weather, which is driven by energy carried by solar wind from the sun. Their findings help us better understand and predict its effects.

“A large rush of current on a circumpolar flight can mess with electronics and passengers,” explained SSEL engineer Ehson Mosleh. “Airlines are constantly rerouting flights [due to space weather].”

Because satellites – including television, weather and GPS – are subject to electromagnetic radiation caused by space weather, the ability to predict such an event could affect our lives in many ways. Military operations relying on GPS, for example, can revert to more traditional navigation while GPS signals are affected.

MSU and other institutions in the CubeSat Launch Initiative provide their data to NASA, which could be valuable to the agency, said Garret Skrobot, Mission Manager for NASA’s Launch Services Program.

“If a small instrument can pick up the science, we can create a larger instrument that can do more refined observations in those regions,” Skrobot said, adding that MSU is a leader in CubeSats.

Before sending them to the launch pad, SSEL tests its satellites extensively to ensure they can endure the stresses of launch and years in orbit. A vibration table in the lab imitates the rigors of a 17,500 mph rocket ride through the atmosphere, and a giant, silver thermal vacuum chamber re-creates the extreme temperature swings of a 90-minute orbit, with 60 minutes of sun and 30 minutes of shade.

“Our other job here is to build these satellites with as many students as possible,” said Mosleh, noting SSEL employs about 20 graduate and undergrad students and four staff, and integrates work from the university’s physics, engineering and computer science departments.

Adam Gunderson, an electrical engineering graduate student originally from Kalispell, Montana, began working in the lab as an undergrad in 2008. He’s helped design and build the transmitting radios and power systems, and done testing, on three satellites. During MSU’s first successful launch, Gunderson was sitting in mission command in San Luis Obispo, California.

“There are so many moving parts,” he said of the work and its challenges. “They say in this business, ‘The highs are really high, the lows are really low.’”

SSEL’s work is funded entirely by grants and contracts, which Mosleh says are increasingly competitive. Regardless of the lab’s future, these satellites will be operational for six or seven years to come, keeping MSU squarely on the map of space exploration.

This story was first published in the summer 2014 Mountain Outlaw magazine.