Montana State University

NASA awards MSU for speedy reporting from 100-hour experiment

January 8, 2007 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


This antenna on top of Cobleigh Hall recently picked up results from a 100-hour experiment NASA was conducting on a new satellite. (Photo courtesy of MSU's Space Science and Engineering Lab).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
msunews@montana.edu
BOZEMAN -- While most Montanans were sleeping, a Montana State University antenna was gathering information last month from a satellite the size of a shoe box.

MSU physicists did such a good job of passing along that information that NASA recently gave them an award. As part of an international contest, the physicists received certificates and pins, and they're waiting to learn if they've won more.

"We are anxiously waiting to hear about the grand prize, but not with a lot of anticipation," said David Klumpar, director of MSU's Space Science and Engineering Lab and one of four people at MSU who were honored for their part in NASA's GeneSat-1 mission.

NASA wanted to see how E. coli bacteria behaved in space, so it planned a 100-hour experiment and asked everyone from scientists to amateur ham radio operators around the world to help compile results. The rocket carrying the satellite was launched Dec. 16 from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Va., and the experiment ended Dec. 22. The E. coli rode in clear capsules so that optical equipment onboard could monitor its growth and activities and send that information to the ground.

To encourage participation, NASA held three contests. MSU was honored for being one of the first 20 tracking stations to post results. Other winners in that category came from Japan, Malaysia, Australia, Canada, Iowa, Florida and California.

"This is remarkable since the satellite is never more than about 30 degrees above the horizon here in Bozeman, placing us at a disadvantage compared to ground stations closer to the equator," said William Hiscock, physics professor and head of the MSU physics department.

Klumpar said the satellite's orbit ranged from 40 degrees north of the equator to 40 degrees south. Located 45 degrees north, MSU's tracking station generally detected signals three or four times a day between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. The station was set to pick up signals automatically without operators being present. Each reception period lasted less than eight minutes, but that was enough for MSU to capture 600 transmissions during the 100-hour experiment.

"We have a reasonable chance of being somewhere in the top 10," Klumpar said. "I don't think we will make the grand prize."

Other MSU honorees besides Klumpar were Danny Jacobs from Nebraska, Brian Larsen from Oregon and Keith Mashburn from Georgia. Jacobs and Larsen are MSU doctoral students in physics. Mashburn, an MSU undergraduate in physics, is in Texas on a cooperative program through MSU, but Klumpar said he was recognized because he played a large part in setting up MSU's tracking station.

Officially called K7MSU, the station was finished in June 2005. Klumpar said it was originally created to collect information from MEROPE, the student-made satellite that blasted toward space last summer, but was destroyed when the Russian rocket that carried it crashed. Located on the fourth floor and roof of Cobleigh Hall, the station uses a motor-driven antenna that follows the path of any satellite it's set to track. The station also uses a variety of computers. One computer screen shows a map of the world and the satellite's location during orbit. Another screen displays information about the ground station operation. Two other screen contain streams of letters and numbers that look like garble, but they're actually coded information.

While the experiment was running, MSU gathered results from the experiment, as well as engineering information about the satellite, temperature and other facts, Klumpar said. Although the experiment has ended, MSU is still collecting information about the orbiting satellite.

"We are interested in practicing tracking satellites in hopes we will get our own up there some day," Klumpar said.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu