Three more satellites built by Montana State University students may be flying into space on NASA missions.
MSU officials learned this week that two missions involving three MSU satellites were among 24 chosen for possible flight, and both ranked high on the priority list.
“Today has been a good day,” said David Klumpar, director of MSU’s Space Science and Engineering Laboratory. “We are really pleased that little, old MSU is once again one of the lead dogs going around the race track.”
One pair of MSU satellites together ranked fourth out of 24, and one satellite ranked sixth, Klumpar said. He doesn’t know how many satellites will ride on any one rocket, but said the number could range from a handful to a dozen. The flights could take place any time from 2014 through 2016.
The next steps are to conclude a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with NASA and to prepare the satellites for launch, Klumpar said. MSU students have already designed the satellites and built preliminary models, but they now have to prepare them for flight.
They’ve done it many times before, Klumpar said. MSU students started building satellites in 2001, and their latest satellite, launched by NASA in October 2011, is still orbiting the Earth. The Hiscock Radiation Belt Exploration satellite sends back information every day to MSU students who continue to communicate with it from a room in Cobleigh Hall.
“Very few college graduates in this country can look up to the sky every 90 minutes and think, ‘I helped to put that satellite in orbit,’” said Richard Smith, head of the MSU Department of Physics. “It must give them a real sense of pride and accomplishment.”
Klumpar said the latest satellite, commonly pronounced “Herbie,” has orbited the Earth more than 7,200 times in the past 16 months and has sent back valuable information. He noted that the distance traveled by Herbie is 66 times the distance from the Earth to the moon and back, or more than one-third of the distance to the sun.
“We are getting a tremendous amount of information about the health of the spacecraft and how to operate in this hazardous environment,” Klumpar said. “We are also measuring high energy radiation near the Earth. The payload continues to operate as well as the satellite itself. We are getting a tremendous amount of data about the long-term behavior of very low-cost satellites in a space environment.”
Herbie could continue to orbit for 12 years, but he doesn’t know how long it will operate as a satellite, Klumpar said. It has already gone far beyond the four months that the MSU design team considered a successful mission.
The satellite and the three new satellites are based on cube-shaped units that measure about 4 inches on each side. For that reason, they are known generically as CubeSats. This new batch of satellites tapped for future flight through NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative will follow Herbie and three other MSU satellites scheduled for launch later this year under NASA’s CubeSat program, Klumpar said.
MSU continues to experience success with its satellites because of the teams it has assembled, Klumpar said. Declining to take any credit himself, he said the members include “dedicated, hard-working students that really get involved, really wrap their arms around these things and are highly motivated,” as well as three full-time engineers in MSU’s Space Science and Engineering Laboratory — Larry Springer, Ehson Mosleh and Keith Mashburn, who mentor the students.
An estimated 500 students have worked on MSU’s satellites since 2001, Klumpar said. They come from engineering, physics and a variety of other disciplines.
The experience is a “tremendous benefit to the students,” Klumpar said. They put into practice their academic training in real-world situations, learn to work together in interdisciplinary teams, and have the opportunity to evaluate the success of their designs.
“It may be one of our strongest programs for recruiting undergraduate physics and engineering students,” he said.