University Of Colorado Satellite Begins Returning Science Data

Published: March 9, 1998

Three science instruments launched Feb. 26 aboard a $5 million satellite designed and built by CU-Boulder students, faculty and engineers have been turned on and are returning data, said project scientists.

Called the Student Nitric Oxide Explorer, or SNOE, the satellite carries an ultraviolet spectrometer and two photometers to measure nitric oxide in the upper atmosphere, X-rays from the sun and light from the Earth's aurora. Nitric oxide is a small but reactive component of the upper atmosphere that affects the temperature and density of near-Earth space and may be important to the chemistry of the ozone layer, said Stan Solomon, deputy investigator on the project.

Developed at CU-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, the NASA mission is being controlled from LASP’s Research Park facility in Boulder 24 hours a day by students and faculty. “The science data we are getting back from the satellite look great,” said Solomon. “NASA has been very supportive, and things are going smoothly.”

The design and construction phase involved about 110 CU-Boulder students, primarily undergraduates, said Solomon, who is coordinating the SNOE effort with principal investigator and LASP Professor Charles Barth. The $5 million includes the cost of the spacecraft, instruments and mission operations.

SNOE is only the second NASA satellite to be entirely operated and controlled by a university. The first, the Solar Mesosphere Explorer satellite, which gathered data on ozone and solar radiation variability from 1981 to 1988, also was controlled from CU-Boulder under the direction of Barth, said Solomon.

SNOE was one of three spacecraft selected for flight by the Universities Space Research Association in 1994 as part of NASA’s Student Explorer Demonstration Initiative. The CU-Boulder spacecraft, the first to launch, will be followed by a Boston University satellite later this year.

The students tapped into the expertise of engineers from LASP, Ball Aerospace Corp. of Boulder and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, working with them in all phases of the project. “The students brought enthusiasm, new perspectives and the ability to work long and productive hours,“ Solomon said. “In some cases they managed to solve problems that stumped the rest of us.”

The original goals of the initiative were to demonstrate the feasibility of designing and building small, relatively low-cost spacecraft that could accomplish beneficial science and include significant student participation, said Solomon.

“The people who dreamed up NASA’s Student Explorer program remember the dawn of the space age, when spacecraft could be built and launched swiftly and cheaply with direct student involvement,” he said. “We wanted to capture some of that magic, and we think we have.”

The three-foot diameter, 250-pound spacecraft was launched on a 55-foot-long Pegasus expendable-launch vehicle built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. The Pegasus was carried to an altitude of 40,000 feet by a jet aircraft and dropped into a five-second free fall. It then ignited horizontally and began ascending, placing SNOE in a circular orbit about 340 miles above Earth within 10 minutes.

LASP satellite operations manager Randy Davis, also in charge of controlling two British technology satellites from the CU operations facility, was relieved when the science data began rolling in. “It was a real treat for me to see the students enjoying themselves so much over the course of this project,” he says. “And space missions are surely a lot more fun when they work.”

The mission operations phase, expected to continue for at least one year, will be supported in part by a special excellence award from the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. “We are keeping our fingers crossed that we can continue the mission for a longer period, providing more students with flight operations and data analysis experience,” said spacecraft manager and LASP researcher Jim Westfall.

“It was an amazing experience to actually work on a satellite,” says aerospace engineering graduate student Aimee Merkel, the project leader on the UV spectrograph who began on the SNOE project as an undergraduate. “I think we all have a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.”

Additional information on the SNOE project can be found on the World Wide Web at: