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Posted: Oct 01, 2013
Student-built satellite launched into Earth orbit
(Nanowerk News) A small satellite designed and built by a team of University of Colorado Boulder students to better understand how atmospheric drag can affect satellite orbits was successfully launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California Sunday morning.
The satellite, known as the Drag and Atmospheric Neutral Density Explorer satellite, or DANDE, will investigate how a layer of Earth’s atmosphere known as the thermosphere varies in density at altitudes from about 200 to 300 miles above Earth. The commercial Falcon-9 SpaceX rocket lifted off the launch pad at about 10 a.m. MDT carrying DANDE, a small beach ball-sized satellite developed over a period of about six years by roughly 150 students, primarily undergraduates, as part of the Colorado Space Grant Consortium, or COSGS.
"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 who is a senior at CU-Boulder. “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-Boulder students who went to the DANDE launch.
There are thousands of satellites orbiting Earth, most of which eventually degrade, lose altitude and burn up in the atmosphere. The denser the thermosphere -- which is most affected by space weather caused by variations in solar activity -- the more drag on spacecraft, said Brian Sanders, deputy director of COSGC, who is helping to oversee the CU-Boulder student group that designed and built DANDE.
“It has been a great first day for the DANDE student team,” said Sanders who noted a short radio message from the satellite was heard around the world before it passed over Boulder. “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,” he said.
DANDE is carrying an accelerometer, a wind and temperature spectrometer, an onboard computer, an orientation control system and radio equipment to send back data to Earth in real time. DANDE, whose primary investigator is COSGC Director Chris Koehler, launched on the rocket along with satellites from the Canadian Space Agency, Cornell University and Utah State University.
“For me the launch of DANDE was the culmination of countless hours, innovation and dedication by our team,” said Brenden Hogan, the other project manager co-leader for DANDE a junior in aerospace engineering. “I was prepared for the worst outcome at every turn but at every turn there was nothing but success. 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.
The accelerometer aboard DANDE can sense the movement, speed and direction of the satellite to help scientists better understand drag forces. A second onboard instrument, the wind and temperature spectrometer, will provide information on the changing drag forces present in the thermosphere by identifying what kind of particles are impacting the spacecraft as well as their angles and collision velocities.
The roughly 150 students who have worked on DANDE since its 2007 inception are from several CU-Boulder departments, including aerospace engineering, electrical engineering, environmental and civil engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science and astronomy.
The COSGC, which involves 17 universities, colleges and institutes in the state, is headquartered in CU-Boulder’s aerospace engineering sciences department. "Many thanks to the Space Test Program, the Air Force Research Labs, the University NanoSat Program, SpaceX and the CU-Boulder family for all the support that made the launch and first contacts possible," said Sanders.
DANDE, measuring roughly 20 inches in diameter and weighing just over 100 pounds, was deployed into a polar orbit. DANDE 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 consortia established by NASA in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, Colorado’s may be the most active, having launched three space shuttle payloads, three sounding rockets, two orbiting satellites, 12 sounding rocket payloads, five long-duration high-altitude balloon payloads and more than 350 short-duration high-altitude balloon payloads.