Space Grant Students Discover Ups and Downs of Spacecraft Operations

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CU student Nicole Doyle joins student managers from other schools "on console" for the launch.

Fourteen students and recent graduates from the Colorado Space Grant Consortium had the opportunity to visit California's Vandenberg Air Force Base in February to witness the launch of their CubeSat, Hermes.

Unfortunately, last-minute technical problems caused the Feb. 23 launch to be delayed; then on March 4 the rocket was launched but failed to achieve orbit. The students were disappointed to say the least, but they didn't come home completely empty-handed.

Hermes was selected for launch as a secondary payload as part of NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites, or ELaNa project, which also included CubeSats built by Montana State University and Kentucky Space, a consortium of Kentucky state institutions. A $28 million instrument designed and built by a team from CU-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics was one of two primary payloads.

The tiny CubeSat satellite, which measures just four inches on a side, provided a unique hands-on learning opportunity for nearly 100 undergraduates and was the first CubeSat designed and built by CU students. Its mission was to improve communications systems for small satellites through orbital testing, which could pave the way for other university missions to downlink large quantities of information.

Brian Sanders, research coordinator for the Colorado Space Grant Consortium, says the trip to Vandenberg offered a fantastic learning experience, beyond the development of the CubeSat.

"The students were able to see a different side of spacecraft development—the operations and launch side—which is a huge experience," he says. "Even though we didn't see the launch, we had 95 percent of the overall experience."

Aerospace engineering senior Nicole Doyle, the project manager for Hermes, says she and the rest of her team were able to be part of the launch readiness review and to visit the pad where the Taurus XL rocket was awaiting countdown.

For four hours leading up to the launch—in February and again in March—Doyle also joined NASA Goddard engineers and the ELaNa Mission management team in one of the mission control rooms at Vandenberg.

"I never would have thought during my freshman year that I would get to see a satellite, that myself and many, many others worked on, actually launch with a NASA satellite," she says. "This is one of the greatest opportunities I can imagine university students getting to be a part of."

It was confirmed after launch in a press briefing that the Taurus XL payload fairing had not separated, resulting in the loss of the Glory satellite as well as the three ELaNa CubeSats.

"Unfortunately, tonight just three minutes into launch, we lost four great satellites: Glory, E1-P, Ky-Sat, and, our own, Hermes," Doyle wrote in an e-mail to the Colorado Space Grant Consortium community. "We may have lost the Hermes hardware tonight, but we won't ever lose the experience we've gained or the times we've shared on Hermes."

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