Montana State University

Two MSU-built satellites launched early Dec. 6

December 5, 2013 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Matt Handley, left, and SSEL Director David Klumpar watched in 2012 as information was downloaded from MSU’s first orbiting satellite. Handley was a freshman when MSU’s first student-built satellite was launched on Oct. 28, 2011. Now a junior, he has developed software for two student-built satellites that launched early Dec. 6. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham). These two CubeSats launched early Dec. 6 from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. (Photo courtesy of MSU's Space Science and Engineering Laboratory).

Matt Handley, left, and SSEL Director David Klumpar watched in 2012 as information was downloaded from MSU’s first orbiting satellite. Handley was a freshman when MSU’s first student-built satellite was launched on Oct. 28, 2011. Now a junior, he has developed software for two student-built satellites that launched early Dec. 6. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).    High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN – Two more satellites built by Montana State University students are now in space. MSU and a Japanese ham radio operator have communicated with one satellite so far.

The identical CubeSats were launched at 12:13 a.m. Mountain time Friday, Dec. 6, from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, said David Klumpar, director of MSU’s Space Science and Engineering Laboratory (SSEL).  They were released around 3 a.m. Mountain time from the Centaur upper stage of the Atlas-5 rocket that carried them into space as part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa-2) program. The satellites, known together as FIREBIRD, passed over Bozeman about 4:47 a.m., giving MSU students a little time to communicate with them before they continued their orbit around the Earth.

A tired Klumpar, still awake after watching the launch from California, said about 1 p.m. Friday that the satellites had made three passes so far over Bozeman. They would make three more passes late Friday and early Saturday and would probably continue that schedule for a few weeks. The first pass of the day over Bozeman starts between 11 p.m. and midnight.

MSU students manning the Space Operations Center in Cobleigh Hall were able to communicate with one CubeSat, but not the other yet, Klumpar said. Not sure why and hopeful that they'll hear from both satellites, Klumpar said there could be a variety of reasons for the silence. The explanation could as minor as an antenna pointing the wrong way or something more significant.

"If we can't get both of them up and running, it will make a serious dent in the scientific contribution we had hoped to make," Klumpar said. "But we are not at all ready to declare anything close to that kind of situation."

Once the satellites passed over Bozeman, they continued over the North Pacific and worked their way down the coast of Japan, Klumpar said. A Japanese ham radio operator heard from the same satellite that MSU did, decoded the information it sent him, and emailed it to MSU where students translated the decoded information into engineering data. It told them, among other things, that the temperature inside the CubeSat was within the proper range, and that the voltage and current were as expected. It indicated that the scientific payload was ready to collect data.

Approximately 30 MSU students, in conjunction with partners at the University of New Hampshire, built the satellites over the past four years, Klumpar said. Most of MSU’s students were undergraduates majoring in engineering or physics.

“It’s such a tremendous opportunity for our undergraduate students to start practicing their careers well before they take their first job,” Klumpar said. “It lets the students understand what their career will be like while they can still change their mind. If they do decide to stay with the aerospace business, they have a head start on their career, which puts them well in front of 98 percent of their peers.”

Among the students who gathered in Cobleigh Hall late Thursday night and early Friday to watch the launch and monitor the satellites were Matt Handley of St. Albans, W.Va., a junior in computer engineering.  Also there was Brian Larsen, one of the science collaborators in the FIREBIRD mission and a former MSU doctoral student who now works at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Klumpar and his counterpart at the University of New Hampshire watched the launch from the Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Handley, who had a final exam later Friday, designed software for FIREBIRD and watched when MSU’s first student-built satellite launched on Oct. 28, 2011. That CubeSat, called the Hiscock Radiation Belt Explorer (HRBE), has now orbited the Earth more than 10,750 times and is still sending back information to Handley and other students in MSU’s Space Operations Center.

It was interesting to become involved with HRBE toward the end of that project and then become involved with FIREBIRD earlier in the process, Handley said. Handley became associated with the SSEL the first week of his freshman year. After he earns his bachelor’s degree, he hopes to attend graduate school at MSU and then work in the aerospace industry.

“I have had a good time here. I have learned a lot,” Handley said.

Larry Springer, SSEL program manager, said the MSU satellites were among 12 CubeSats that hitched a ride as secondary payloads on Friday's launch. They were also the first two nanosatellites released from the rocket. The FIREBIRD satellites separated from each other and will fly 124 to 186 miles apart in an orbit 280 to 541 miles above the Earth. They may stay in space for several years, but their most important job will be done over the next three months when they gather more information about the loss of electrons from the Van Allen Radiation Belts. Radiation in space affects Earth in a variety of ways, including interference with communication systems and power grids.

Klumpar said electrons become trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field, but the trap is leaky, causing electrons to be lost into the upper atmosphere from the Van Allen Radiation Belts. To better understand the process and impacts, MSU and the University of New Hampshire designed two satellites that will gather information in tandem. The satellites are slightly taller than HRBE, which is a cube about four inches on each side. The FIREBIRD satellites conform to a nanosatellite size standard, known as the CubeSat standard, which allows them to ride together in a container called a PPOD. FIREBIRD refers to Focused Investigations of Relativistic Electron Burst, Intensity, Range and Dynamics.

FIREBIRD was funded by the National Science Foundation under the NSF’s CubeSat-based Science Missions for Geospace and Atmospheric Research program. The University of New Hampshire built the instruments that will take scientific measurements. MSU students designed and built the satellite buses that hold those instruments. They also integrated the instruments into the satellites and tested them to prepare them for launch.

For more information, go to 

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or