MSU preparing space satellite

2001-05-15T23:00:00Z MSU preparing space satelliteJAMES HAGENGRUBER Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette

Mike Obland always liked science, “Star Trek” and staring at the stars from his childhood Colstrip home, but he never expected he’d help build Montana’s first satellite.

There will be no barbed wire fasteners or cattle brands stamped to its solar panels, but the satellite is being designed and constructed largely with homegrown talent at Montana State University’s Space Science and Engineering Lab in Bozeman.

Obland, a graduate student, is deputy project manager and payload specialist for the satellite, which is scheduled for launch in November. The 23-year-old is returning to Colstrip Thursday to talk about the satellite project and encourage other students to chase the stars.

“Anyone coming out of Colstrip High School can do this kind of stuff if they put their mind to it,” said Obland, who hopes to work for NASA after earning a doctoral degree in physics.

Obland credits the science classes he took at Colstrip High School for giving him the background to succeed as an undergraduate at the University of Montana.

The satellite he is now helping to design and build is named MEROPE, which is the name of a star in the Pleiades cluster and an acronym for Montana Earth Orbiting Pico Explorer. A pico, by the way, is a scientific term for something “very, very small,” said David Klumpar, a research professor and director of MSU’s Space Science and Engineering Lab.

The MEROPE satellite will repeat the science mission of Explorer I, the first U.S. satellite, which was sent to space Feb. 1, 1958. Explorer I weighed about 25 pounds and carried instruments that found evidence of belts of radiation circling the earth.

moreinfo Mike Obland, a Colstrip graduate and research assistant at the Montana State University Space Science and Engineering Lab, will talk about the development of Montana's first satellite Thursday night at 7 p.m. at the Bicentennial Library in Colstrip.

The program is free and open to the public.

For more information on the satellite, visit www.montana.edu/msgc/merope/.

MEROPE packs the same equipment and will search for the same charged particles but weighs only 2.2 pounds and is about one-third the size of a loaf of bread. The purpose of MEROPE is not so much astrophysical discovery as it is hands-on learning, Klumpar said.

“The primary purpose is to get a team of students working together taking on a significant project,” he said.

The project began Jan. 1. Obland and Project Manager George Hunyadi, also a graduate student, have directed a design and construction team of up to 50 undergraduate students. The team members have academic backgrounds ranging from engineering and physics to business and marketing. The students gain valuable training for a field that continues to explode in growth four decades after the Space Age began, Klumpar said.

“There’s a tremendous market for young, new talent,” he said. “The space business is quite multifaceted, from large to small manufacturers.”

Designing a satellite is no easy task – it is rocket science, after all. The students worked under design specifications from Stanford University’s CubeSat Project, which aims to develop small satellites that will be less expensive to launch into orbit.

All the design and construction work is done in Bozeman, Klumpar said.

The satellite will hold complex communication and scientific equipment, but must not weigh more than 2.2 pounds. It will also carry a compact disc full of names, hometowns and messages sent by students from across Montana.

MEROPE has a lightweight aluminum frame and is covered by solar panels. It must withstand vast temperature extremes. On the dark side of the earth, the satellite will be chilled to colder than minus-400 degrees. The sun will heat it to above-boiling temperatures. Special coatings and thermal devices will be used to keep the components from melting.

The satellite, including launch, is projected to cost less than $50,000 and is entirely funded through government and private grants, Klumpar said.

It must be completed by July 23, which is when the small cube will be shipped to Utah for pre-launch testing. The satellite will then be shipped to Kazakhstan for a November launch, along with 14 other CubeSats from a variety of U.S. universities.

The CubeSats will be hitching a ride on a Russian Dnepr SS18 rocket, which once functioned as an intercontinental ballistic missile, Obland said.

“It’s pretty neat to think it used to carry nuclear warheads and now it carries student satellites,” he said.

The Dnepr rocket will blast off in November from the famed Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Central Asian desert. Baikonur was once the Soviet Union’s top-secret launch facility.

Some of the Bozeman team will likely be at the launch. Klumpar said as a physics graduate student in the 1960s, he helped develop satellite payloads. He said watching the launch is very emotional.

“It’s gut wrenching and I always cry,” Klumpar said. “I mean, it’s just so exciting. These things take years of effort to put a payload together. Everything is riding on that launch.”

The 15 CubeSats are considered secondary payload on the rocket, which will also be carrying a larger satellite from “a customer with deeper pockets,” Klumpar said. It costs $30,000 to launch a CubeSat, he said.

Once the rocket reaches an orbit 400 miles above the earth, MEROPE will be released into space by a P-Pod dispenser developed at California Polytechnic State University. Obland compared the device to a Pez candy dispenser – a door will open and a spring will push the small box into the vacuum of space.

The MEROPE satellite will then start circling the earth at about 15,600 mph. The satellite will pass over Montana twice each day. When the satellite is overhead, students at a Bozeman mission control center will have between 10 and 15 minutes to download data and send new instructions to the craft, Obland said.

Students will know the satellite’s exact location. Unlike large satellites or space stations, MEROPE is too small to be seen arcing across the night sky, Klumpar said.

“I wouldn’t spend a lot of time out there in the cold looking for it,” he said.

Klumpar hopes the satellite continues sending data for at least four months, which is how long Explorer I remained in contact with scientists. In the meantime, students will begin working on additional satellites at MSU.

“If everything goes right, we’ll do one per year,” Klumpar said.

MEROPE will likely orbit the earth for several years until gravity slowly pulls it down. As Montana’s first satellite nears earth, it will start speeding up, eventually going into a spiral and reaching high temperatures as it plows through the upper atmosphere.

“It will eventually be a little, tiny shooting star someplace,” Klumpar said.

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