Satellite designed and built by CU-Boulder students now in orbit

DANDE has left the planet.

A beach ball-sized satellite designed and built by a team of CU-Boulder students is now whipping around the planet in a polar orbit. Roughly 150 students have been involved in the project since 2007.

The satellite, known as the Drag and Atmospheric Neutral Density Explorer satellite, or DANDE, will investigate how atmospheric drag can affect satellite orbits.

“Being an astronomy major, I never believed there would come the opportunity to be on a satellite team,” said Miranda Link, one of two project manager co-leaders on the DANDE project and a CU-Boulder senior. “And even then I never dreamed of a management role. Who would have thought I would see a rocket launch too? What an amazing journey!”

Link was one of 12 CU students who went to the Sept. 29 DANDE launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Thousands of satellites are orbiting Earth, most of which eventually degrade, lose altitude and burn up in the atmosphere. The denser the thermosphere the more drag on spacecraft, said Brian Sanders, deputy director of the Colorado Space Grant Consortium. DANDE will investigate how a layer of Earth’s atmosphere known as the thermosphere varies in density at altitudes of about 200 to 300 miles above Earth.

“I'll never forget the roar of student cheers when the first data packets were received from the CU-Boulder ground station and seen in the mission operator displays,” Sanders said.

DANDE is carrying two scientific instruments, an onboard computer, an orientation control system and radio equipment to send data back to Earth in real time. DANDE, whose primary investigator is COSGC Director Chris Koehler, was on a commercial Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket launched along with three other satellites from various institutions.

“For me the launch was the culmination of countless hours, innovation and dedication by our team,” Brenden Hogan, the project manager co-leader for DANDE and a junior in aerospace engineering, said after the launch. “We look forward to all that we will be doing in the coming months and approach it all with the same enthusiasm as this weekend.” Hogan is from Littleton and attended Mountain Vista High School, while Link is from Johnstown, Colo., and attended Roosevelt High School.

Members of the DANDE student team have come from six academic departments. Team members hope to gather continuous data from the satellite for about one and a half years, downloading it several times a day to the COSGC satellite control facility in the engineering college.

Since 1989, more than 5,000 students, primarily undergraduates, have been directly involved in COSGC’s hands-on space hardware program. Of the space grant groups established by NASA in all 50 states, Colorado’s may be the most active, having launched three space shuttle payloads, three sounding rockets, two orbiting satellites, 12 sounding rocket payloads and five long-duration high-altitude balloon payloads. 

COSGC, which involves 17 universities, colleges and institutes in the state, is headquartered in CU-Boulder’s aerospace engineering sciences department. Other organizations contributing to the successful launch of DANDE include the U.S. Department of Defense’s Space Test Program, the Air Force Research Labs, the University NanoSat Program and the commercial space company, SpaceX.