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MONTANA GOES INTO ORBIT

When Montana's first satellite goes up in 10 months, it will honor NASA with that sincerest form of flattery: imitation. The Montana Earth Orbiting Pico Explorer (MEROPE) project, based at Montana State University-Bozeman, will be a reflight of the historic Explorer 1 mission. Reaching orbit in January 1958, Explorer 1 was the American answer to the USSR's Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, launched nearly four months earlier. Ironically, MEROPE will be launched on a converted ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) from deep within the former Soviet Union.

MEROPE is a student-run project funded by NASA's Montana Space Grant Consortium. “The great thing about the project,” says Mike Obland, project manager and physics Ph.D. student, “is that it's completely student run.” And open to all majors. “We have an open-door policy concerning student participation,” says Dave Klumpar, physics professor and director of MEROPE. “We get art majors, business majors, and math and microbiology majors.” Most of them, he adds, however, are mechanical, electrical, and computer science majors.

Regardless of specialty, the students, Klumpar says, make most decisions involving design, fabrication, and testing. A pair of undergraduates even tested the satellite's radio antennae in microgravity aboard NASA's KC-135A aircraft, nicknamed the “Vomit Comet” for the nausea-inducing parabolic trajectory it follows to simulate low gravity.

Klumpar and his students are currently building a ground tracking-station on campus. MEROPE will pass over this station twice a day as it circles the Earth. When the satellite is overhead, the students will have a 10-minute window during which they'll send commands for MEROPE to beam down its data. The satellite will be measuring the radiation of the Van Allen Belt, a layer of high-energy, charged particles that envelopes the Earth at the atmosphere's edge. Known primarily for its detrimental effect on satellite components, the Belt was discovered by Explorer 1 in 1958.

The Montana satellite is part of the CubeSat project run by Stanford University in association with California Polytechnic University. CubeSat's goal was to develop a framework in which students could design, fabricate, and operate so-called pico-satellites—weighing less than 1 kg and fitting inside a 10-cm cube.

The decision to limit the satellite to these dimensions and mass wasn't made for purely educational purposes. The very real, very expensive costs of launching satellites factored in. Indeed, launch costs are why MEROPE, sharing space with some 18 other pico-satellites on the ICBM, is being launched in Kazakhstan. Klumpar says it will cost about $10,000 per kilogram to launch in Kazakhstan. A launch in the United States would cost 10 times as much. Buying flight space on a converted ICBM is cheaper than on a rocket powered by commercial booster. Klumpar says national policy and the interests of companies who build booster rockets have made ICBM launch-opportunities in the United States rare.
Integral to CubeSat is getting the satellites designed, constructed, and into orbit within two years. “They wanted this project to be a chewable bit,” Klumpar says. “They wanted the project to fit within a typical student's schedule, so they can see the fruits of their labor.”

MEROPE was scheduled to launch in the fall of 2003, but delays have pushed the date back. Regarding the future, Klumpar says the goal is to launch satellites in intervals of a year to year and a half. He hopes MEROPE, like Explorer 1, will keep transmitting data for about four months. Regardless of how long it remains functional, MEROPE has been a unique learning experience for those involved. “I didn't really know anything about satellite building when I started,” Obland says. “We've all come a long way.”

 

DOWNLOADING THE OCEAN

The seamaven project is bringing the ocean into Georgia classrooms. Begun in January 2003, the project is working to establish a Web site from which middle and high school students can download near real-time oceanographic data from instruments on Navy flight-training platforms off the coast of Georgia. The goal is to develop classroom projects utilizing this data, giving students a taste of scientists' work and making them aware of technical career paths. Jim Demmers, the Georgia Tech researcher heading the project, says, however, that SeaMaven is not just a recruiting tool. “This is an attempt to get students into science as not only a career option,” he says, “but as something they can carry forward into the rest of their lives.”

The Skidaway Institute of Oceanography (SkIO), a research unit of the University of Georgia System, installed and maintains the measuring equipment on the platforms and is providing SeaMaven access to the data. The six platforms rise from the water in a grid covering over 2,300 square miles of Georgia's coastal waters.

The data is gathered by three sensors. An atmospheric sensor mounted high on the platform measures barometric pressure, temperature, and wind speed. In the waters below are a near-surface (about ten feet below sea level) and near-bottom (70 to 75 feet below) ocean sensor. These two measure the temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen content, and amount of floating organic matter.
Students will access this data via the SeaMaven Web site and use it in projects Demmers and others are now preparing. Demmers says putting this SkIO data into a format students can use has been a challenge. “We're looking to put it in flash and use a lot of animation on the Web site,” he says.
One of the projects planned involves measuring the amount of dissolved oxygen and organic matter—indicators of a healthy environment for marine life—in the water. Using longitudinal data, the students will study how the amounts of both vary with the seasons. Another will study how onshore rainfall and runoff affect the salinity of coastal waters. Salinity is a concern for the shrimp nurseries that dot the Georgia estuaries. Shrimp need to grow up in a mix of salt and freshwater. “The big thing,” Demmers says in summary, “is to show kids how things that happen on land affect what happens in the ocean.”

After the SeaMaven Web site launches this spring, Demmers says the teachers will be a factor in its success. He recently brought a group of them to SkIO to introduce them to SeaMaven and solicit their ideas for classroom projects. He says he will continue to work closely with them, but the teachers, ultimately, will be in charge. “They're the experts,” Demmers says. “It's their classroom. We are just trying to give them a tool.”

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