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Discovery Newsletter

Volume 13Discovery NewsletterIssue 7Discovery NewsletterMay 2002

Main Page On the Web Grants Corner Featured Stories In Focus


MSU Satellite to Fly on Converted Missle


MEROPE Kids

by Evelyn Boswell

A missile that once waited for orders to fire at the United States will someday carry a tiny satellite developed by students at Montana State University-Bozeman.

Kazakhstan, a country in the former Soviet Union, is expected to launch a converted intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) anywhere between November and next spring, said physics professor Dave Klumpar. But instead of heading for the United States, it will soar into space. MSU's satellite will ride along to help measure radiation trapped in the Van Allen belts that surround the earth.

"There are no launch facilities in Montana," Klumpar explained. "The two or three possibilities in the United States don't work out because of cost and other things. It turns out that foreign launchers are by far the least expensive."

The first satellite ever built in Montana is the size of a toddler's toy, a cube measuring about four inches per side. Known as the Montana EaRth-Orbiting Pico Explorer (MEROPE), it will contain scientific instruments and two antennas. The satellite will be shipped to Kazakhstan and loaded onto the carrier with satellites from other U.S. universities.

"To be here and have students involved, to give them the same kind of experiences I had, is just really exciting for me," said Klumpar who was involved in space experiments 40 years ago as an undergraduate.

Several students in MSU"s Space Science and Engineering Laboratory (SSEL) have worked on the satellite, and four of them flew in the infamous "vomit comet" this spring to test the antennas they designed for it. The KC-135 flies out of the Johnson Space Center, then soars and dives over the Gulf of Mexico to create weightlessness.

"It"s kind of like swimming under water, but even that isn¹t realistic," Cody Pinion commented. "When you are in zero gravity, it"s really difficult to position yourself."

"It"s a fun time. That's for sure," added Ian Barnes.

Pinion is a junior from Great Falls, and Barnes is a junior from Billings. Other MSU students who flew on the KC-135 were Trevor Grove, a senior from Great Falls; and James Black, a senior from Williston, N.D. Alternates were Michelle Galvin, a senior from Kalispell, and Andrew Ross, a senior from Missoula. All six are majoring in mechanical engineering.

"This has been a tremendous experience for the students," said Tom Wilson, head of Swales Aerospace. "They built their mechanism in less than eight weeks, and we understand it worked as designed."

Swales and the Montana Space Grant Consortium are two major sponsors of the MEROPE project.

The students went into "space" to see which of three metals would work best in their antennas. They also wanted to see if the antennas would deploy in near-zero gravity. The antennas started out as ordinary tape measures and were coiled inside the satellite waiting for the students to press a button. If all went well, the antenna burst out of the cube and straightened out in less than 15 seconds.

"We have to have a way to keep them self-contained in the satellite until the satellite gets kicked out into space," Klumpar said. "Once it gets kicked out into space, those antenna have to open up so we can talk to the satellite. If the antenna don¹t open up, we are fried. We have just launched a piece of space junk."

Fortunately, the antenna and release mechanisms usually worked the way they were designed, he said. As for the students, they said they appreciated the opportunity to work on the project. "It was really a unique experience," said Pinion who wants to work or contract with NASA someday.

Galvin flew on the KC-135 last year and said it's been a popular topic on job interviews. "It's the one thing they always ask," she said.

Evelyn Boswell is the technical writer for the Office of Research, Creativity and Technology Transfer.

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