Montana State University

MSU satellite to accompany NASA mission into space

February 3, 2010 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Dave Klumpar holds a solar panel that will provide power for the MSU satellite that will ride into space this fall. The satellite structure, located behind the solar panel, is a cube that measures about four inches on each side. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- It's official. A small research satellite that Montana State University students built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first successful U.S. satellite will ride into space this fall on a NASA launch.

Calling it "a historically huge moment," David Klumpar, director of MSU's Space Science and Engineering Laboratory, said this will be the first time that an MSU satellite will be launched from the United States. It will also be the first time that miniature satellites made at any U.S. university will fly on a NASA mission. MSU's satellite is one of three that will accompany the NASA mission.

"It's a tremendous breakthrough," Klumpar said.

MSU's "Explorer-1 Prime" and satellites from two other universities were nominated for flight about 1 1/2 years ago, but the universities didn't know until now if, or when, the satellites might be launched or the mission that would carry them. NASA announced Tuesday that the three satellites are scheduled to be launched in late November with Glory, a climate mission to measure the sun's energy output and the distribution of tiny airborne aerosol particles. The other university satellites were made at the University of Colorado and a consortium of Kentucky universities. A satellite made at the University of Florida was chosen as an alternate. The satellites are expected to be launched on the Taurus XL launch vehicle from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Maria, Calif.

All four satellites are called CubeSats because of their shape. They are aluminum cubes that measure about four inches on each side and weigh no more than 2.2 pounds. Several universities adopted that as a standard size so the satellites could ride together in an enclosed box -- called a P-POD -- that's attached to a rocket.

MSU's satellite will replicate the scientific mission of the Explorer-1 mission launched on Jan. 31, 1958, Klumpar said. That mission detected the existence of a band of energetic charged particles held in place by the Earth's magnetic field. The band was named the Van Allen Radiation Belt after the late James Van Allen, who directed the design and creation of instruments on Explorer-1.

Van Allen was also Klumpar's mentor when Klumpar was working on his master's degree at the University of Iowa. Van Allen was the guest speaker, too, at Klumpar's 40th class reunion from Washington High School in Iowa. While at the reunion, Klumpar told Van Allen about the satellite his students were building at MSU. Van Allen suggested that the satellite be named the Explorer-1 Prime because of its relationship to Explorer-1. He offered to give Klumpar some Geiger Tube radiation detectors from the Pioneer 10 mission, the first mission to leave the solar system.

One of those Geiger tubes will go into space in the Explorer-1 Prime to measure the intensity and variability of the electrons in the Van Allen belts. MSU's satellite will also carry solar cells for power, a radio receiver and transmitter and a computer system to operate the entire device, Klumpar said. The satellite -- funded by the Montana Space Grant Consortium based at MSU -- is expected to orbit the Earth at least 15 years before it disintegrates in space.

The Explorer-1 Prime is significant because of the science behind it, Klumpar said. It's also valuable because it gives MSU students hands-on experience in designing, building and operating equipment for space, he added.

Approximately 125 undergraduate students have worked on MSU's satellite in some capacity since the summer of 2006, Klumpar said. One of those, Keith Mashburn, just graduated from MSU in December and is now heading the integration and testing activities for Explorer-1 Prime. Mashburn said he has been involved with the SSEL since 2002 and has been working on the Explorer-1 Prime since 2008.

"It's most exciting to hear that NASA has finally decided to take an interest in these small university programs," Mashburn said. "We have been working on some of these little guys for years and years and years."

His experiences in the space lab led to him working about 18 months in the space science and engineering division of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Mashburn said. He received undergraduate credit for that experience, which taught him how large projects are accomplished and added to his value as an employee.

"One of the biggest things that has always helped me here is developing a level of competence so I can hold a conversation with these people," Mashburn said.

Klumpar said current MSU students took the satellite apart over the summer to fix a problem with its communication system. Since resolved, the satellite will soon head to the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah, for testing. Scientists there will "shake the bejesus" out of MSU's satellite to make sure it's ready for the vibrations and shaking it will undergo during launch. They will also place the satellite in a large vacuum chamber for a week and expose it to extreme temperatures that the satellite could experience in space when it goes back and forth between the sun and shadows 14 times a day. Temperatures might dip as low as minus 40 F and as high as 110 F.

"That stress from thermal and vacuum is hard on equipment," Klumpar said.

If the process stays on schedule, Klumpar said MSU's satellite will head to California Polytechnic State University in mid-July. There, it will be placed in a container with the satellites from the other universities.

MSU's satellite was originally slated to fly aboard on the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, but the approval process took long enough that the satellite was rescheduled for the Glory mission, Klumpar said. The delay turned out to be fortunate for MSU, because the OCO mission crashed into the Indian Ocean near Antarctica on Feb. 24, 2009.

For related articles, see:
"MSU instruments shake, back, hurtle to prepare for space" at

"MSU satellite recommended for flight with NASA" at

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or