Montana State University

MSU students build satellite for 50th anniversary of Explorer-1

January 29, 2008 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN --Montana State University students who only know about the Cold War from history books plan to launch a satellite later this year to commemorate the country's first successful satellite.

Explorer-1 was launched 50 years ago, on Jan. 31, 1958, after the Soviets sent up Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957. The U.S. satellite discovered the Van Allen Radiation Belt around Earth, a find said to be the first major scientific discovery of the space age.

MSU students from a variety of disciplines have been building a namesake of Explorer-1 for about three years. They hope to launch the Explorer-1 (Prime) in December, said David Klumpar, director of MSU's Space Science and Engineering Lab. He added that the satellite will probably launch from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and collect information for four months. Ham operators from all over the world should be able to track it as it orbits about 440 miles above them, making one loop around the Earth every 90 minutes.

"It's just a fantastic opportunity for the students to apply their basic engineering and science and mathematics skills to a sophisticated practical project where they have to work together, bringing all their individual capabilities together to solve a complex problem," Klumpar said.

Project manager Danny Jacobs said, "The main goals of the mission are education, outreach and historical context."

It's also to encourage a new generation of space scientists.

"All those people are old now," Jacobs said of the scientists inspired by Explorer-1. "If they were 10 years old then, they are in their 60s and approaching retirement. They are extremely knowledgeable, but they are fading away. There hasn't been nearly as much interest in space and those accomplishments since then."

Klumpar said he worked on space projects while studying for his bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Iowa and wanted to make such opportunities available to MSU students. Klumpar took classes from the late James Van Allen and worked in his lab. The Van Allen Radiation Belt is named after the Iowa physicist who directed the design and creation of instruments on Explorer-1.

"When I came here to Montana State, it was because of that opportunity that I had been given as an undergraduate that I felt like I wanted to share and give the current generation of students that same opportunity," Klumpar said.

Explorer-1 (Prime) is being built by the Space Science and Engineering Lab and its students for the Montana Space Grant Consortium. The satellite -- an aluminum cube that measures about four inches per side -- will hold instruments to detect radiation and a power supply to run those instruments. It will also contain one of the original Van Allen Geiger tubes that Van Allen provided MSU a few months before he died.

"It's an enormous resume builder," Jacobs commented. "People that leave SSEL with more than one year of experience have had more success than I would have imagined."

Former students who worked on the project have gone on to work for NASA or aerospace companies. Others are in graduate school or work for small engineering firms in Montana.

Once the satellite is completed, it will go to California Polytechnic State University where it will be placed in a container with two other satellites the same size, Jacobs said. The container will then be mounted on a rocket and launched into space above the Earth's atmosphere.

The original Explorer-1 contained a cosmic ray detector, radio transmitter, and temperature and micrometeroite sensors. While orbiting the earth, the satellite encountered a band of radiation that was so strong that it saturated the satellite's instruments, Jacobs said. Only later did the scientists realize the significance of the band and called it the Van Allen Radiation Belt. The belt is made of energetic charged particles held in place by the earth's magnetic field.

"That was a huge milestone for the American space race and understanding the connection between the sun and the Earth," Jacobs said. "Particles trapped in the Van Allen Radiation Belt could have been coming from the sun or Earth. It turns out they were coming from a combination of the two. These particles are one of the main hazards to space flight. Luckily, we learned about them early."

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