Montana State University

Two more MSU satellites launch into space

January 27, 2015 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

These two satellites -- FIREBIRD 3 and FIREBIRD 4 -- were made by MSU students and their partners at the University of New Hampshire. (Photo courtesy of MSU's Space Science and Engineering Laboratory).  NASA EDGE co-host Blair Allen prepares to film an interview at Montana State University. (Photo courtesy of David Klumpar). Blair Allen, left, interviews Adam Gunderson in MSU's Space Science and Engineering Laboratory. (Photo courtesy of David Klumpar). This graphic shows the concept behind FIREBIRD. (Image courtesy of MSU's Space Science and Engineering Laboratory).

These two satellites -- FIREBIRD 3 and FIREBIRD 4 -- were made by MSU students and their partners at the University of New Hampshire. (Photo courtesy of MSU's Space Science and Engineering Laboratory).

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Tel: (406) 994-4571

BOZEMAN – Two more satellites built by Montana State University students and partners at the University of New Hampshire have launched on a NASA mission.

Originally set for Jan. 29, then Jan. 30, the launch finally occurred at 7:22 a.m. Mountain time Saturday, Jan. 31. Less than three hours later, reports came in that both satellites were communicating with Earth. About 75 minutes after the launch, MSU’s satellite development program was featured on NASA TV.

“The opportunity our MSU students have to design and build sophisticated space flight hardware, get it launched on a NASA mission, and then actually operate their own satellite once it’s in space adds an incredibly important element to their education not available at most universities,” said David Klumpar, director of MSU’s Space Science and Engineering Laboratory.

FIREBIRD 3 and 4 – the name of the tiny cube satellites called CubeSats -- rode on a Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. They were originally supposed to be launched on Jan. 29, but NASA scrubbed the launch because of upper altitude winds. The launch was then set for Jan. 30, but it was delayed again to make minor repairs to the launch vehicle. The launch finally occurred on Jan. 31 after conditions were predicted to be 100 percent perfect.

Shortly after 8:30 a.m. Mountain time -- after the launch and when the satellites were deployed -- a segment on MSU’s satellite program began airing on NASA EDGE, a program that gives an “offbeat, funny and informative look behind the NASA curtain.” MSU’s segment lasted more than 30 minutes and included a live interview with MSU student Matthew Handley. It also included pre-produced videos with Klumpar, research engineer Keith Mashburn and four MSU students. NASA EDGE co-host Blair Allen performed an ongoing bit where he wore MSU gear and supposedly grabbed MSU's satellites from Cobleigh Hall and ran with them to California. Accompanied by songs like "On the Road Again," the journey took him past cows, through trees and down roads until he reached Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Viewers watch NASA TV on every floor of NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and every NASA facility in the United States, said Klumpar, who returned to MSU in the fall after working two years at NASA headquarters. Allen said NASA EDGE can be seen on NASA TV or accessed on iTunes, YouTube and the NASA website at

Three MSU-built satellites are currently orbiting the Earth. The Hiscock Radiation Belt Explorer (HRBE) was launched Oct. 28, 2011. FIREBIRD 1 and 2 – the precursors of the new satellites -- were launched Dec. 6, 2013. FIREBIRD refers to “Focused Investigations of Relativistic Electron Burst Intensity, Range, and Dynamics.”

Because of that work, Allen said MSU’s satellite development program has been on NASA EDGE’s radar for a while. To feature MSU on the program, Allen and two other NASA EDGE crew members came to MSU in September to film the CubeSats before they headed to California to be loaded onto the rocket. The crew filmed inside the Space Science and Engineering Laboratory in Cobleigh Hall. They interviewed Klumpar, Mashburn and four students or recent graduates who were involved in building and operating the satellites. The students were Handley, Jerry Johnson, Adam Gunderson and Nathan Fite.

Fite is a recent MSU graduate with a master’s degree in engineering management. A native of Wheelersburg, Ohio, he has worked on CubeSats for at least six years and continued to work on them as a graduate research assistant in the Space Science and Engineering Laboratory until November when he left MSU for an aerospace position in southern California.

Gunderson, a Kalispell native, told NASA EDGE that he started working on CubeSats as an undergraduate in electrical engineering and eventually became responsible for their power systems. He recently earned his master’s degree in electrical engineering. Four days after the NASA EDGE interview, he left Bozeman to start working for Northrop Grumman Corp., an aerospace and defense technology company.

Being able to say that he had been involved with four satellite missions from cradle to the grave made him a much better job candidate than if he hadn’t had the experience, Gunderson said.

MSU is the third university to have its satellite program featured on NASA EDGE, Blair said. One past show focused on California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), but it included an appearance by Ehson Mosleh, an MSU graduate and current employee of MSU’s Space Science and Engineering Laboratory. Another show featured Medgar Evers College of The City University of New York (CUNY).

FIREBIRD 3 and 4 are the fifth and sixth MSU satellites to be launched through NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program. Their most important job is gathering more information about the loss of electrons from the Van Allen Radiation Belts, Klumpar said. 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 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 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, where Klumpar earned his Ph.D., 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.

The main job of the rocket carrying FIREBIRD 3 and 4 is to launch a NASA mission, called Soil Moisture Active Passive. SMAP will measure and map the moisture and freeze/thaw state of soil to better understand water, carbon and energy cycles on the Earth.

For a related article, see "UNH Scientists Launch CubeSats into Radiation Belts Jan. 29."

For an MSU commercial about MSU's satellite-building program, go to


Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or