Montana State University

MSU instruments shake, bake, hurtle to prepare for space

September 2, 2009 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

MSU student Pat O'Hara, right, carries a rocket body to the launch pad while Paul Hopkins, left, from AERO-Pac, carries MSU payload and a rocket nose cone. In the middle is MSU graduate Scotty Kratochvil. (Photo courtesy of David Klumpar).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- Montana State University students who build satellites and instruments for space welcome rigorous opportunities to test their designs, says David Klumpar, director of the Space Science and Engineering Laboratory at MSU.

That's why in June they launched a sensitive sensor to measure Earth's magnetic field, Klumpar said. Carried by a rocket, it reached 10,000 feet before returning to a Nevada desert.

That's why in September they'll take a satellite to Logan, Utah. For five days, technicians at the Space Dynamics Laboratory will expose the Explorer-1 (Prime) satellite to extreme temperatures, place it in a vacuum chamber and shake the "bejesus" out of it.

"If it works through all that, we feel it's qualified for space," Klumpar said.

The Explorer-1 (Prime), when ready, will be delivered to California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo for final preparations for an April launch, Klumpar said. MSU students originally built the satellite to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first successful U.S. satellite.

Explaining more about the Nevada test, Klumpar said MSU students had already started building the magnetometer board that could fly in two years on their SpaceBuoy satellite. A magnetometer detects the Earth's magnetic field. Once it's in space, it tells a computer which way the satellite is oriented.

The MSU team then learned about the ARLISS Project, a collaboration involving the Stanford University Space Systems Development Program, other educational institutions and high power rocketry enthusiasts in northern California. ARLISS would allow MSU to test its magnetometer by flying it on a rocket that's about 10 feet tall and six inches in diameter, Klumpar said. ARLISS provided funding for the MSU payload and for MSU's team to travel to the Black Rock Desert this summer. The Association of Experimental Rocketry of the Pacific, or AERO-Pac, provided the launch vehicles.

"Its only purpose is to prove out the system so when we fly it in our satellite, we will have better confidence," Klumpar said.

To participate in ARLISS, Klumpar drove down to Black Rock with Scotty Kratochvil, a 2009 MSU graduate in mechanical engineering technology, and Pat O'Hara, an MSU undergraduate in physics.

About 100 miles north of Reno, the trio used a Global Positioning System and orange cones to find the exact spot on a dry lake bed where they'd meet the people in charge of the rockets, Klumpar said. A cluster of RVs and tents indicated that they'd found the site, so they set up their tent -- a lodging choice that wasn't encouraged because of strong winds. Then they started preparing their instrument package for flight.

Sometime in the process, teams from other universities suggested they attach a video camera.

"Oh, no," Kratochvil said, describing his first reaction. "We have got our plan. We have our primary mission."

But Klumpar likes to push his students to their limits, Kratochvil said, so the MSU team borrowed a camera and attached it with Velcro, duct tape and zip ties to the bottom of the acrylic tube that contained their magnetometer board and a GPS system. Folded in the other end of the tube were two parachutes.

A black powder charge and solid rocket fuel launched their package, Klumpar said. Once it reached maximum height, it returned slowly to Earth, and the MSU team drove about a mile to retrieve it. They then returned to MSU to analyze the results and see if they needed to make any adjustments. While flying on the rocket, the magnetometer board recorded information that could be downloaded later on a computer.

"Pat has some results already, but he continues to work on them," Klumpar said.

Kratochvil said, "The last thing we want is for it not to work on our satellite."

The information they gather will be used to make sure the magnetometer works for the SpaceBuoy project, Kratochvil said. SpaceBuoy is a satellite that's about 18 inches tall and 18 inches in diameter, about the size of a wedding cake. MSU designed it after having their proposal to the Air Force Research Laboratory University NanoSat Program selected for the third time since 2003.

Read a related article, titled "MSU satellite recommended for flight with NASA" at

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or