BOZEMAN — A very small research satellite built by Montana State University students is one of three that have been chosen to ride into space this fall on a NASA launch, school officials said.
David Klumpar, director of MSU’s Space Science and Engineering Laboratory, said the scheduled November launch would mark the first time miniature satellites made at any U.S. university would fly on a NASA mission.
“It’s a huge breakthrough,” Klumpar said.
MSU’s “Explorer-1 Prime” and others from the University of Colorado and the University of Kentucky are called CubeSats because they are aluminum cubes that measure about four inches on each side and weigh no more than 2.2 pounds.
MSU’s satellite is to replicate the 1958 scientific mission that detected the existence of a band of charged particles held in place by the Earth’s magnetic field. The band was named the Van Allen radiation belt after the late James Van Allen, who directed the design and creation of the instruments on the Explorer-1 mission.
Van Allen was Klumpar’s mentor when Klumpar was working on his master’s degree at the University of Iowa, and the guest speaker at Klumpar’s 40th high school class reunion. While at the reunion, Klumpar told Van Allen about the satellite his students were building at MSU. Van Allen suggested the satellite be named “Explorer-1 Prime” because of its relationship to Explorer-1. He also gave Klumpar some Geiger tube radiation detectors from the Pioneer 10 mission, the first mission to leave the solar system.
One of those Geiger tubes is included in Explorer-1 Prime to measure the intensity and variability of the electrons in the Van Allen belt. MSU’s satellite also includes solar cells, a radio receiver and transmitter and a computer system to operate the device, Klumpar said.
The satellite is expected to orbit the Earth for at least 15 years before it disintegrates in space.
MSU’s satellite must still go through some testing at the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah, to make sure it can handle the journey into space and the conditions in space before being ready for launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Maria, Calif.
“The stress from the thermal and vacuum is hard on equipment,” Klumpar said.
About 125 undergraduate students have worked on MSU’s satellite in some capacity since the summer of 2006. Van Allen died in August of that year.