CU-Boulder Student Shuttle Payload Set For Aug. 7 Launch Aboard Discovery

Published: July 30, 1997

A payload designed and built by more than 100 University of Colorado at Boulder students to peer at the sun from orbit is slated to blast into space aboard NASA's space shuttle Discovery at 8:40 a.m. MDT Aug. 7 from Cape Kennedy, Fla.

The CU-Boulder students -- primarily undergraduates -- developed the payload as part of the campus-headquartered Colorado Space Grant Consortium. Known as DATA-CHASER, the payload is about the size of two 55-gallon drums and will sit in the shuttle's payload bay and gather information about the sun's far ultraviolet light spectrum as Discovery circles the Earth.

The payload is made up of two parts, said Consortium Director Elaine Hansen. One is a flight-computer support system known as the Distribution and Automation Technology Advancement, or DATA. The second portion of the payload, the Colorado Hitchhiker and Student Experiment for Solar Radiation, or CHASER, includes instruments to measure the sun’s variation.

Information gathered by DATA-CHASER will help researchers understand how changes in solar radiation affect the atmosphere of our planet, said Hansen. Since UV radiation from the sun can impact the earth's ozone layer, understanding how it works is crucial to understanding changes in the earth's ozone.

CHASER’s UV spectrometer and sun sensor will record UV wavelengths from the sun, she said. The instruments were part of two previous CU payloads that flew on NASA’s ATLAS 2 and ATLAS 3 shuttle missions in 1993 and 1994.

CHASER's equipment also will allow students to observe solar events like flares and coronal mass ejections that occur during Discovery's mission, said Project Manager Peter Illsley, an aerospace engineering senior.

The payload’s flight computer controls the payload and will transmit science and engineering data to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where it will be relayed to campus. Students on the operations team will control the payload from their computers at CU while viewing real-time images from DATA-CHASER, said graduate student and Mission Operations Director Ryan Shepperd.

The payload took three years from concept to launch and involved about 85 undergraduates and 15 graduate students from at least six different majors. “The Consortium's students learn to work in teams with colleagues from different backgrounds, discovering that they can accomplish things together they had never imagined possible,” said Hansen.

Students involved in the Consortium agree. "I've learned to think in the real world, not the theoretical world," said Illsley. "It's learning under fire."

Shepperd, who began his work at the Consortium as a freshman, said the education from such real-world science and engineering is invaluable. “I've learned more doing space grant work than I have in any of my course work."

Students are responsible for all aspects of the project, from obtaining parts to designing computer programs for handling data. "We learn practical engineering --how to make things cost effective on a shoestring budget," said Shepperd.

The cost of the payload hardware was less than $30,000 said Illsley, a fraction of the cost of most space shuttle instruments.

The Consortium is open to any student willing to volunteer his or her time. Students typically start out doing simple tasks, but can quickly move up to paid positions and management roles. Working with the Consortium allows students to gain the leadership and managerial skills employers look for, said Illsley.

Consortium students are highly recruited by NASA centers and the aerospace industry, says Hansen. "It's amazing what these students are capable of,” said Hansen. “This is a complex payload, and it's working."