CU-Boulder Student Space Team Awarded Contract To Build Satellite

January 29, 2007

The University of Colorado at Boulder has been awarded a contract from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research to design and build a small student satellite to study variations in Earth's atmosphere and its effects on spacecraft.

CU-Boulder was one of 11 universities in the nation selected to receive $110,000 over two years to design and build student satellites as part of the AFOSR's University Nanosatellite Program. One or two of the 11 satellites will likely be selected for flight in 2009, according to the director of the Colorado Space Grant Consortium Chris Koehler, who led the winning proposal.

The $110,000 award will be used to purchase hardware and to pay the student team, which is made up of CU-Boulder undergraduates and graduate students, Koehler said. Headquartered at CU-Boulder, COSGS involves 13 colleges, universities and institutions around Colorado that provide students access to space through coursework, hands-on satellite programs and outreach programs.

CU-Boulder, along with New Mexico State University and Arizona State University, won an earlier student satellite competition sponsored by AFOSR in 2002. The three universities launched two small satellites -- known collectively as the Three Corner Sat project -- in December of 2004, although a sensor glitch on the launch vehicle malfunctioned and cut the mission short, Koehler said.

"We are pleased to have made the first cut for this new project, and I feel the CU team has put together an excellent mission," said Koehler. "It's our goal to have a student-built satellite in orbit by 2011, and we are excited to begin this journey."

COSGS is collaborating with CU-Boulder aerospace engineering sciences department Professors Jeff Forbes and Scott Palo, the U.S. Air Force Space Command and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the satellite. The design and construction will take place in the Discovery Learning Center at CU-Boulder's College of Engineering and Applied Science.

"This is one of the only opportunities in the nation for university students to actually design, build and fly satellites," said CU-Boulder aerospace engineering graduate student Marcin Pilinski, a member of the DANDE team. "This particular project is a good mix of science and engineering, and we are excited."

The proposed satellite, dubbed the Distributed Atmospheric Neutral Density Explorer, or DANDE, will be a density, wind and atmospheric composition orbiter that is expected to improve the understanding of the thermosphere, or upper atmosphere. The thermosphere is the area of the atmosphere ranging from about 60 miles in altitude to nearly 400 miles in altitude and the region where most spacecraft and satellites orbit the Earth, Koehler said.

About the size of a typical office copier, the 120-pound satellite is being designed to deploy two spherical probes equipped with accelerometers and pressure sensors to measure atmospheric drag, he said. The sensors would relay atmospheric data back to the main satellite, burning up over the course of several months as they reenter more dense layers of Earth's atmosphere, Koehler said.

"Because the probes will be a known weight and shape, the information they transmit about the thermosphere should be of interest to the space community," he said. "We expect that it will help scientists and engineers better determine the expected lifetimes of satellites that are launched into orbit."

Koehler said about 10 to 15 students will be involved in the project each semester. The DANDE effort will undergo several design reviews by University Nanosatelite Program officials during the two-year effort. "From a scientific and educational standpoint, this is a great opportunity for CU-Boulder students and for our collaborators, he said.

Of the 52 space grant consortiums in the United States, Colorado's has been among the most active, designing, building and flying four sounding rocket payloads, three space shuttle payloads, a satellite and hundreds of high-altitude balloon experiments in the past 15 years. A payload designed and built by COSGS students for launch from a new commercial spaceport in New Mexico was lost in October when the commercial spacecraft it was riding on crashed after liftoff.

Other universities selected by the University Nanosatellite Program to build satellites include Santa Clara University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University and Washington University in St. Louis. Other winners were Utah State University, Pennsylvania State University, Boston University, Montana State University and Michigan Tech University.