Published: Feb. 1, 1998

A $5 million Earth-orbiting satellite designed and built by a team of University of Colorado at Boulder students, faculty and engineers is currently slated for launch from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base on Feb. 4.

Called the Student Nitric Oxide Explorer, or SNOE, the satellite will carry instruments to measure nitric oxide in the upper atmosphere that affects Earth’s ozone layer, the intensity of x-rays from the sun and ultraviolet light from Earth’s aurora. Developed at CU-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, the mission will be controlled from LASP’s CU Research Park facility 24 hours a day by students and faculty, said Stan Solomon, deputy co-investigator on the project.

“We’re ready for launch,” said Solomon. “I know that SNOE alumni throughout the country who contributed to the project are excited that we’re finally going to orbit after more than three years.”

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 initial SNOE design work also involved students from a computer drafting class at Arapahoe High School in Littleton.

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 spacecraft will be the first to launch, followed by a Boston University satellite later this year.

“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. “We happen to be very strong in all three areas.”

From 1981 to 1989, CU students and faculty controlled the Solar Mesosphere Explorer satellite from campus, the first NASA satellite ever entirely operated and controlled by a university. SNOE will be the second.

Senior Erica Rodgers, a Pueblo native who began working on SNOE as a freshman, designed the mechanical and optical components of the solar x-ray photometer. “As the first freshman on the project, I really lucked out,” she said. “It will be overwhelming knowing something I built is in orbit.”

Graduate student Jason Westphal, who wrote SNOE flight software as a junior, said he would not have continued on to graduate school were it not for the project. “This was a rare opportunity,” said Westphal, who is now the attitude determination and control engineer for SNOE. “I was in the right place at the right time, and I think the hands-on experience has positioned many SNOE students, including me, for good jobs in the aerospace industry.”

The three-foot diameter, 220-pound spacecraft will be launched on a Pegasus expendable-launch vehicle built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. The Pegasus will be carried to an altitude of 40,000 feet by a jet aircraft and dropped into a five-second free fall. It will then ignite horizontally and begin ascending, placing SNOE in a circular orbit about 340 miles above Earth within 10 minutes.

“One of our motivations when we started was to try to rekindle enthusiasm for space exploration,” Solomon said. “What we found was that swarms of students wanted to be involved in this project because it provided hands-on experience in the design and fabrication of a real spacecraft.”

The students tapped into the expertise of engineers from LASP, Ball Aerospace Corp. -- which built the Solar Mesosphere Explorer satellite -- and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, working side by side with them in all phases of the project.

The mission operations phase will begin with spacecraft contact from campus about an hour after the 11:59 p.m. MST launch on Feb. 4. The operations, 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.

“People viewing this as an educational project can see the value of the hands-on experience gained by our students,” he said. “But significant funding has gone into SNOE, and we believe this mission also is an important part of NASA’s overall science program.”

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