Montana State University

MSU satellite launches on NASA mission, but fails to reach orbit

March 4, 2011 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

MSU students who worked on the Explorer-1 [Prime] satellite react to news that the Taurus XL rocket carrying their satellite failed just before reaching orbit. Standing from left are Matt Voll, Ben Welna, Adam Gunderson and David Racek. Seated is Clint (CJ) Hadwin. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- Montana State University's student-built satellite launched early Friday morning on a NASA rocket, but the rocket failed to place any of its four satellites into orbit.

Cheers and applause turned to silence as 17 current and former students realized that the Explorer-1 [Prime] satellite they built over the past five years would crash in the Antarctic Ocean or southern Pacific Ocean. The students had gathered in MSU's Cobleigh Hall to watch NASA televise the launch from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Maria, Calif.

The satellite launched on time -- shortly after 3 a.m. March 4 on a Taurus XL rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corporation -- but a few minutes later, NASA officials announced a "contingency on the Glory mission." Glory was the primary NASA satellite on the launch. MSU's Explorer-1 [Prime] and two other university-built satellites were hitching a ride into space on Glory's rocket.

The NASA announcement meant there was a problem.

The rocket's fairing -- an aerodynamic covering that worked like a clamshell and protected the satellite from the rigors of launch -- failed to fall away when it was scheduled, MSU Space Science and Engineering Laboratory Director David Klumpar explained by phone after watching the launch in California. That meant the rocket carried extra weight and couldn't accelerate fast enough to reach orbit 440 miles above the Earth. At one point, NASA announced that the rocket was flying 9,500 mph, but it needed to reach 18,000 mph.

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

He added that it would take months for NASA and Orbital to analyze the data and figure out why the fairing stayed attached to the rocket instead of falling away. MSU's satellite will never be recovered, he said.

"We are making our way quickly to the bottom of the ocean at this point," Klumpar said of the Explorer-1 [Prime].

Keith Mashburn, SSEL research associate who watched the launch at MSU, noted that fairings had failed to open on the previous launch of the Taurus XL. He added that it was the second time he had watched the failed launch of an MSU satellite. The first time occurred five years ago when MSU's MEROPE satellite rode on a Russian rocket that also crashed shortly after take-off.

"That's twice," Mashburn said Friday morning as he pounded the back of a chair in MSU's Space Operations Center.

Mashburn, Klumpar and MSU's Explorer-1 [Prime] project manager Ehson Mosleh soon focused on some positives, however.

Klumpar said MSU will have another chance to launch a satellite that was built to honor the first successful U.S. satellite and James Van Allen, the scientist who discovered the Van Allen Radiation Belts. MSU students built a twin to the Explorer-1 [Prime], and that satellite is already scheduled to launch Oct. 25 on another NASA mission. That satellite will ride on a Delta-2 rocket, which is much larger than the Taurus XL, Klumpar said. It will still launch from the Vandenberg Air Force Base, but from a different launch pad.

Mosleh, who watched the launch from California, said by phone that, "It's a big disappointment for many students who worked on the project and all the management team, but we have future opportunities for a new flight. We are going to keep doing what we do."

Mashburn noted that, "The primary mission of Explorer-1 [Prime] was student education. Ninety-five percent of our mission was a success by simply being on that rocket and exposing students to the intricacies of designing, building and quantifying a satellite for launch. Just by making it to the launch pad, we accomplished our primary objective, and that's fantastic."

Cory Wiltshire, a former student who worked on the satellite and watched the launch from California, said the experience directly led to him being hired as a software engineer at Space Micro.

Matt Voll, watching the launch at MSU, said, "It definitely led to bigger and better things. I learned more working hands-on in the lab than I did in the classroom."

Approximately 125 students over five years worked on MSU's satellite. The Explorer-1 [Prime] was one of only three university-built satellites that were chosen to fly on the Glory mission. All three were called CubeSats because they were cubes that weigh no more than 2.2 pounds. That's a standard size that allows the satellites to ride together in an enclosed box - called a P-POD - that's attached to the rocket. The Glory mission was a climate satellite designed to measure the sun's energy output and the distribution of tiny airborne aerosol particles in the upper atmosphere.

The Explorer-1 [Prime] was originally scheduled to launch early Feb. 23, but that launch was called off shortly before take-off. NASA engineers later discovered and fixed a problem with the ground software.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or