Early Friday morning, shortly before 4 a.m. Mountain time, a student-built satellite called Explorer-1 [Prime] roared into the sky on a NASA rocket launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Almost two hours later, the satellite separated from the rocket and starting circling the Earth.
Within three hours of launch, ham radio operators in France, England and The Netherlands had reported hearing from the satellite. A few minutes later, the satellite was heading over the North Pole toward Alaska. Dave Klumpar, director of MSU's Space Science and Engineering Laboratory, said the satellite should be within range of student monitors at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks Friday around 7 a.m. Mountain time.
"I'm tired and just totally elated," Klumpar said by telephone from California. "This is a huge step forward."
Ehson Mosleh a current SSEL staff engineer and Explorer-1 [Prime] program manager who also witnessed the launch from California, said, "This is a monumental step forward for Montana State University, the state of Montana, and all of the individuals who have been involved in the history of the Space Science and Engineering Lab."
Approximately 125 students designed, built and tested the satellite over the past five years, and some of them gathered in Cobleigh Hall to watch the launch on monitors in the Space Operations Center. Other current and former students joined Klumpar and Mosleh at the Vandenberg Air Force Base. Adam Gunderson, a senior in electrical engineering, represented MSU in the NASA control room.
The satellite, sponsored by the Montana Space Grant Consortium, was MSU's first satellite to make it into orbit. A previous satellite, called MEROPE, rode onboard a Russian rocket that crashed in 2006. A twin to Explorer-1 [Prime] was launched in March this year, but it failed to reach orbit because of an anomaly with the TAURUS-XL rocket that carried it.
Perhaps because of those experiences, students who gathered at MSU Friday held their cheers and applause for almost an hour until they made sure the satellites were going to leave the rocket as planned. Dan Schwendter, a former SSEL graduate research assistant and now a master's degree student in mechanical engineering, said the group may have learned from past experience not to react too quickly.
But when NASA's satellite separated from the rocket Friday morning, the students started cheering. Half an hour later, when the Explorer-1 [Prime] sprang from its container and entered orbit, no one held back.
"We have a satellite in orbit right now. Delta II is my new favorite rocket. That's awesome," said C.J. Hadwin of Bozeman, a senior in electrical engineering.
Klumpar said, "It's just incredible to watch 500,000 pounds of stuff lift off the face of the Earth and climb out at the speed and lift it does."
MSU's satellite was one of six university-built satellites onboard the Delta II rocket. All six are aluminum cubes weighing no more than 2.2 pounds and measuring about four inches per side. That standardized size allows university-built satellites, called "CubeSats," to fit into an enclosed container called a P-POD.
"MSU's SSEL has the unique distinction of being the only university to fly a CubeSat on both of NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellite (ELaNa) missions. No other university in the world has flown university-built small satellites on two NASA orbital launches," Klumpar said recently as the launch date approached.
MSU"s satellite was designed to emit a "heartbeat" every 15 seconds, Klumpar said. The signal allows ham radio operators around the world to detect the satellite and report its progress to MSU. MSU students will now monitor the satellite from campus, receiving their strongest signals twice a day.
The Explorer-1 [Prime] will circle the Earth every 90 minutes in an "eccentric" orbit, which means that the orbit will be elliptical instead of circular, and the distance above Earth will be anywhere from 283 to 503 miles, Klumpar said.
MSU built the Explorer-1 [Prime] to replicate the scientific mission of the Explorer-1 mission which was launched on Jan. 31, 1958, and 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 Belt after the late James Van Allen, who directed the design and creation of instruments on Explorer-1.
Van Allen was head of the physics department when Klumpar was a master's degree student at the University of Iowa. Years later, Van Allen spoke at Klumpar's 40th high school class reunion, and Klumpar told him about MSU's project. Van Allen suggested naming the satellite the Explorer-1 [Prime]. He later sent Klumpar some Geiger Tube radiation detectors from the Pioneer 10 mission, the first mission to leave the solar system.
One of the detectors rode in the Explorer-1 [Prime] satellite last spring 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 and pose a danger to astronauts, making it imperative to understand its variability.
Another tube from Van Allen is riding in the Explorer-1 [Prime] launched Friday. The satellite is also carrying solar cells for power, a radio receiver and transmitter, and a computer system to operate the entire device.
The large NASA satellite that rode on the Delta II rocket and exited first represents a critical first step in building the next generation of U.S. polar-orbiting climate and weather monitoring spacecraft. The satellite is a bridge between NASA's Earth Observing System satellites and the upcoming Joint Polar Satellite Systems satellites.
Updates on Explorer-1 [Prime] are available on the Montana Space Grant Consortium Facebook page.
Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or firstname.lastname@example.org