Montana State University

MSU satellite recommended for flight with NASA

October 2, 2008 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Patrick Lokken of Bozeman solders components to the radio that will ride in Explorer-1 Prime. A recent graduate in electrical engineering, Lokken hopes to attend graduate school at MSU, but he is taking a semester off to help finish the satellite. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- A satellite made by Montana State University students to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. satellite has moved another step closer to space.

MSU's satellite, called "Explorer-1 Prime," was one of three recommended to fly on a NASA rocket, MSU scientists announced this week. The others were made at the University of Kentucky and the University of Colorado-Boulder. All the satellites are metal cubes measuring about four inches per side. That size, a standard adopted by several universities, allows the cubes to ride in an enclosed box that can be attached to a rocket.

If NASA officials agree with the recommendation of a review panel that visited MSU in June, the MSU satellite will hitch a ride with a larger satellite and probably launch in mid-June from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, said Danny Jacobs, an MSU graduate student and program director for MSU's project. The satellite could join the Glory mission on its ride into orbit, one of several NASA missions related to global warming.

Dave Klumpar, director of MSU's Space Science and Engineering Lab, said this would also be the first time that NASA has agreed to carry a university satellite into space. A previous MSU satellite flew on a Russian rocket from Kazakhstan, but failed to reach orbit.

"Historically, it's very significant," Klumpar said.

Klumpar attributed MSU's selection to several factors. One was the historic aspect of the satellite. The first U.S. satellite, Explorer-1, was launched in 1958 and carried a Geiger Tube radiation experiment supplied by the late James Van Allen. It led to the discovery of intense belts of hazardous radiation surrounding Earth, now called Van Allen radiation belts.

Another factor in MSU's selection was the heavy involvement of MSU students. About a dozen students are working on the satellite this fall. Approximately 25 were involved over the summer and 40 since the project began. Almost all of the students were undergraduates when they started.

MSU may have also been successful because of the science involved in its mission and the fact that it is a Montana Space Grant Consortium project being designed and built by students in the Space Science and Engineering Lab, Klumpar said. Besides that, Jacobs and his team made a "tremendous" presentation to the NASA review panel. Among other things, the presentation included a short film by Andy Adkins, a student in MSU's Science and Natural History Filmmaking Program.

"We have been pursuing activities like this for eight or nine years," Klumpar said. "This is exactly down our alley, so to speak."

Klumpar and Jacobs learned Sept. 19 that the review panel decided to recommend MSU's satellite. Whether or not it makes it onto a rocket will be decided by two groups at NASA: the Science Mission Directorate and the Flight Planning Board, Klumpar said. He expects them to decide by the end of December.

In the meantime, Jacobs said MSU students are calibrating their satellite and deciding which Geiger Tube radiation detector they want to send into space. MSU's satellite will contain a handful of electronics built by students, a radio, computer, power supply and attitude control system. It will also contain a Geiger Tube that's believed to be a spare from the Pioneer 10 mission, the first mission to leave the solar system. Klumpar received several tubes from Van Allen.

The students will take their satellite elsewhere to see how it operates in a vacuum and holds up to vibrations, Jacobs said. Those tests will probably take place in the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah, or California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

If MSU gets the go-ahead, Explorer-1 Prime will be delivered to Cal-Poly and placed in a pod with the two other recommended satellites, Jacobs said. At this point, he believes they'll ride in the rear of the rocket next to the motor.

"It will be a rough ride, hot and violent and probably scary if we were riding there ourselves," Jacobs said.

Klumpar said MSU designed its satellite to operate at least four months, but it could orbit for up to two decades. It will send back, by radio, information about the radiation environment that's potentially hazardous to astronauts.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or