By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service
The first Montana satellite chosen to ride on a NASA space mission — a small research satellite that involved more than 125 Montana State University students over five years – is now set to launch sometime in early March.
Seven minutes and 44 seconds before MSU’s Explorer-1 [Prime] was supposed to launch early Feb. 23, NASA called off the launch because of an anomaly that was unclear to onlookers and is being investigated by NASA engineers. The launch had to occur within a specific 48-second window or it would be rescheduled.
The Explorer-1 [Prime] satellite will still be launched on a Taurus XL rocket from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Maria, Calif., but the launch is postponed so ground system problems can be sorted out, fixed and retested, according to a NASA Website.
A dozen current and former MSU students waited for the Wednesday morning launch in the Space Operations Center in MSU’s Cobleigh Hall. David Klumpar, director of MSU’s Space Science and Engineering Laboratory, said 18 current and former students, as well as faculty and staff from the SSEL and Montana Space Grant Consortium were in California for the launch.
“We’re all excited, but we are keeping our fingers crossed,” Klumpar said by phone as he waited about three miles away from the launch pad.
Just after he hung up, shortly after 3 a.m. Mountain time Feb. 23, NASA called off the launch. Calling back, Klumpar said, “That’s the rocket biz.”
Ehson Mosleh, Explorer-1 [Prime] project manager, said, “If we are going to be in this business, we have to get used to these types of delays.”
Mosleh was sitting in the mission control building, at the Explorer-1 [Prime] mission manager console in California, during the four-hour countdown on Feb. 23. Although the launch was finally called off, he said, “When you are dealing with complex systems like these, delays like this happen, and you have got to roll with it.”
Keith Mashburn, SSEL staff member who was overseeing the group in Cobleigh Hall, said the delay was heartbreaking, but he commented that it was better to stop the launch and fix the issue than go ahead.
“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” he said.
MSU’s satellite is one of only three university-built satellites that were chosen to fly on NASA’s Glory mission, Klumpar said. The others come from the University of Colorado and several Kentucky universities that combined their efforts to become the Kentucky Space Consortium. All three satellites are called CubeSats because they are aluminum cubes that measure about four inches on each side and weigh no more than 2.2 pounds. That’s a standard size that allows the satellites to ride together in an enclosed box–called a P-POD – that’s attached to a rocket.
Glory is a climate satellite that will measure the sun’s energy output and the distribution of tiny airborne aerosol particles in the upper atmosphere, Klumpar said. Explorer-1 [Prime] is expected to orbit the Earth about 15 years before reentering and disintegrating in the upper atmosphere.
MSU’s satellite will replicate the scientific mission of the Explorer-1 mission, which was launched on Jan. 31, 1958. That mission – the first successful U.S. satellite – detected the existence of a band of energetic charged particles held in place by the Earth’s magnetic field. The band was named the Van Allen Radiation Belts after the late James Van Allen, who directed the design and creation of instruments on Explorer-1. Van Allen was Klumpar’s mentor when Klumpar worked on his master’s degree at the University of Iowa.
Van Allen suggested that MSU’s satellite be named the Explorer-1 [Prime], Klumpar said. Van Allen also gave Klumpar some Geiger Tube radiation detectors from the development of the Pioneer 10 mission, the first mission to leave the solar system. One of those Geiger tubes will go into space in the Explorer-1 [Prime] satellite to measure the intensity and variability of the electrons in the Van Allen belts. The intense radiation in the belts can damage space-borne objects, such as the International Space Station, and pose a danger to astronauts, making it imperative to understand its variability.
MSU’s satellite will also carry solar cells for power, a radio receiver and transmitter and a computer system to operate the device.
MSU students will receive information from the satellite and send instructions to the satellite by manning a telemetry station in MSU’s Cobleigh Hall. The telemetry station will be the primary station for communicating with the satellite, and it will operate as long as the satellite continues to operate, Klumpar said. He further noted that actually operating the satellite in orbit completes the total design, build, test, fly and operation cycle that the students need for the complete experience. With the information they gather, the students will verify the fidelity of their engineering design under the harsh conditions in space, and gather scientific Radiation Belt data for analysis and publication.
If the satellite launches as scheduled, it is expected to make its first pass over Bozeman between 1 and 3 p.m. the same day, Klumpar said. After that initial pass, the satellite will pass over MSU about three times daily, about 440 miles above the ground.
MSU students started working on the Explorer-1 [Prime] in 2006, after launching their first satellite from Kazakhstan, Klumpar said. That satellite, called MEROPE for Montana EaRth Orbiting Pico-Explorer, was destroyed July 26, 2006 when the Russian rocket that was carrying it crashed shortly after take-off.
After the Explorer-1 [Prime] is launched, MSU students will continue working on other satellite projects Klumpar said.
One project – a satellite that’s the twin of Explorer-1 [Prime] – still needs three or four months of work and testing. It is scheduled to be launched sometime in the fall from the Vandenberg Air Force Base. Instead of being one of three CubeSats on a NASA rocket, it will be one of about six, Klumpar said.
In another SSEL project, MSU students are developing a satellite, called SpaceBuoy, that is much larger than Explorer-1 [Prime] and should be launched in two years, Klumpar said. MSU is one of approximately 11 universities that were chosen for the program, called the Air Force University NanoSatellite Program. Each university in the program designs a satellite, with the winning satellite launched.
A major SSEL project is called FIREBIRD, or “Focused Investigations of Relativistic Burst Intensity, Range and Dynamics,” Klumpar said. MSU was one of six universities selected through a “very hard-won competition” sponsored by the National Science Foundation. In this program, students at MSU and the University of New Hampshire are working together to develop two satellites that will orbit in tandem. The satellites should be ready for launch in 2 ½ years.
These projects involve students in a number of disciplines, but most tend to be in engineering, physics and computer science, Klumpar said. The experience has led several to careers in the aerospace industry and caused many to pursue graduate studies related to space or aerospace.
“This is an incredible opportunity,” Klumpar said of MSU’s satellite projects. “Most undergraduate students never come anywhere close to being involved with something as exciting as this is, something they have had their hands on that ends up in orbit around the Earth.
“It’s just almost mind boggling that this opportunity is available to them,” Klumpar said.