Montana State University

MSU research satellite destroyed in rocket launch Tuesday

November 4, 2015 -- MSU News Service

PrintSat, which was the first CubeSat to use 3-D printed polymer technology as the major structural element of a satellite and its mechanisms, was destroyed when an experimental U.S. military rocket failed shortly after launch from Hawaii Tuesday night. All 13 small research satellites aboard were lost. Photo courtesy of MSU Space Science and Engineering Laboratory.

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An experimental U.S. military rocket failed shortly after launch from Hawaii Tuesday night destroying all 13 small research satellites aboard, including one developed in part at Montana State University.

The U. S Navy did not say what went wrong with the launch Tuesday evening, but the website Spaceflight Now reported that videos of the flight showed the 67-foot Super Strypi rocket that carried the satellites veered out of control and broke apart about a minute after liftoff from the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii.

Aboard was a small satellite designed and developed by a handful of space professionals and students in MSU’s Space Science and Engineering Laboratory. Called PrintSat, the innovative satellite utilized 3-D printing technology to determine if the technology can be used in larger spacecraft to lower manufacturing costs.

David Klumpar, director of MSU’s Space Science and Engineering Laboratory, said MSU students and staff who worked on the satellite were disappointed at the launch failure, but were determined to rebuild within the year.

“This is just a part of the space business and our students learn (unfortunately, some times the hard way, like last night) that no matter how well we do our job on the satellite, there are other systems that are beyond our control that also have to perform flawlessly,” Klumpar said.

“We will not be deterred by this loss. I already am working plans to rebuild the satellite and fly it again; perhaps in a little less than a year.”

PrintSat was about the size of a one quart juice box and weighed less than one kilogram. Klumpar said while previous satellites have been milled of standardized metal that is cut down and formed, the PrintSat team, including students and staff that work in MSU’s SSEL started with powdered polymers and a 3-D printer and built-up the PrintSat in a process called additive manufacturing.

Klumpar said NASA has flown spacecraft with a few “bits and pieces of 3-D printed materials, but PrintSat was the first to use 3-D printed polymer technology to build the major structural element of the satellite and its mechanisms.

The Super Strypi launcher that failed Tuesday was developed by Sandia National Laboratories with assistance from the University of Hawaii as a low-cost, quick-reaction rocket for satellite launches. It was the first orbital attempt from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii. The facility has been used for sub-orbital flights, but Tuesday’s launch was the first time that it has been used to launch a satellite into orbit.

In addition to PrintSat, the mission included eight small CubeSats developed by Ames Research Center in California that all carried an MSU-built science instrument that was to test whether networks of small satellites could do jobs frequently now done by larger spacecraft.

Klumpar said the PrintSat is the ninth satellite for which MSU has played a major role. In all, about 500 students have gone through MSU’s SSEL in its 15 years of building satellites. Currently, there are about 20 students enrolled in the MSU program.

David Klumpar (406) 994-6169, klump@physics.montana.edu

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