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Discovery Newsletter

Volume 11 Issue 1 September 1999
Main Page On the Web Patents Corner Featured Stories In Focus


Space Mission Operates Briefly from MSU Campus


by Annette Trinity-Stevens

Bozeman became a temporary control center for a U.S. spacecraft last month, making it the first time a space mission has been commanded from Big Sky Country.

Space Mission

The spacecraft, called TRACE for Transition Region and Coronal Explorer, was launched last year to take high-resolution pictures of the sun. A rotating team of scientists, including three from Montana State University in Bozeman, takes turn issuing daily instructions to the spacecraft from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD.

But last month, when it was MSU's turn to issue the daily plans, the two Bozeman scientists up for duty didn't want to do it.

"It's intense," commented MSU postdoctoral researcher Brian Handy. "A week is about all a planner can take."

The workload, however, wasn't what made Handy and MSU postdoctoral researcher Charles Kankelborg hesitate when it was their turn to go Goddard. Instead, it was science. They wanted to go to a solar physics meeting in California, scheduled close enough to the TRACE assignment to make attending the meeting almost impossible.

The third MSU planner, graduate student Meredith Wills, had already done her stint at Goddard.

The solution was to transform Handy's cubicle in the MSU Engineering/Physical Sciences Building into "mission control" during the week of Aug. 16-22. Handy issued the spacecraft's daily command load from the Bozeman campus to Goddard Space Flight Center over the Internet.

From Goddard, the commands were relayed to one of two groundstations and up to the spacecraft, a process that takes just minutes and is similar to sending an email message, the scientists said.

"This is the first time a U.S. space mission has been operated from Montana," MSU physicist and one-time astronaut Loren Acton recently bragged to university administrators.

To make it possible, Handy imported from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center the correct software and did most of the troubleshooting. The operations planner has to tell the spacecraft which of about seven different extreme-ultraviolet or ultraviolet wavelengths the telescope should use to take its pictures. He or she also must tell the telescope which region of the sun to focus on, since it can see only a fraction of the sun's surface at a time.

And that's the easy stuff. The toughest part of the planner's job is communicating with operators from three other solar satellites and as many as 25 ground-based solar observatories around the world. The international group must reach consensus on what the TRACE spacecraft should do so the planner can issue commands by 2 p.m. the day before the orders go into effect.

"So there's lots of discussion about priorities, all evolving in real time in response to what the sun is doing," Kankelborg explained. "As soon as the scientists all agree to look at region A it seems to cause the sun to develop suddenly a much more active region somewhere else," he quipped.

The group is especially interested in an area of the sun called the transition region. That's a narrow section between the star's surface and the outer halo, or corona, where temperatures go from 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit to more than 1 million degrees. Acton and the other scientists want to know why the corona is so much hotter than the rest of the star.

TRACE, from its orbit 400 miles above Earth, can capture the sun's storms, flares and eruptions in unprecedented detail and time resolution, the scientists said. Handy, in fact, helped build part of the spacecraft's telescope while an MSU graduate student.

It's likely the MSU team will command TRACE from Montana again, said MSU solar physicist Piet Martens, especially as the campus migrates to its Internet2 connection, a high-speed backbone just now coming online.

"That's definitely the future," Martens said.

But that won't completely eliminate the need for weekly jaunts from Bozeman to Goddard Space Flight Center by Handy and the others. TRACE planners have to communicate with other solar missions operated out of Goddard, and that level of cooperation between the missions would be lost if TRACE operations were based in Montana, Martens said.

Annette Trinity-Stevens is the MSU Research Editor.

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