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Education Satellites Hitch Ride on Glory Mission
Student Keith Mashburn tests the Explorer-1 Prime satellite

Image above: Keith Mashburn, a physics student at Montana State University, tests the Explorer-1 Prime satellite for its upcoming flight into space aboard the Glory spacecraft. Photo credit: Montana State University
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Good things sometimes come in small packages. For Launch Services Program, or LSP, mission manager Garrett Skrobot, one of those packages is a Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer, or P-POD, container that can carry mini-research satellites, or CubeSats, on NASA missions.

"This P-POD will carry the first education package on a NASA expendable launch vehicle," Skrobot said. "Providing students with the opportunity to launch their satellites has always been a vision of mine, and it was finally achieved this year with NASA flight planning board approval."

The P-POD and CubeSat Project were developed by California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and Stanford University's Space Systems Development Lab for NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellite, or ELaNa, missions.

Roland Coelho, a Cal Poly aerospace engineering graduate student, has had the opportunity to work with LSP for several years.

"Working with the LSP engineers has been invaluable for Cal Poly students, gaining real hands-on experience in mission integration for the ELaNa mission," Coelho said.

P-PODs are aluminum containers measuring about 5 inches square by about 16 inches long. One P-POD will carry three CubeSats as an auxiliary payload aboard a Taurus XL on NASA's Glory mission, which is scheduled to launch in November from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Skrobot said that after the Glory spacecraft has been released, the P-POD will release the CubeSats to start their missions.

"The CubeSats were selected based on NASA's education goals and visions," Skrobot said.

The first three research cubes were developed by college undergraduate and graduate students at Montana State University, the University of Colorado in Boulder, and several Kentucky universities that combined their efforts to become Kentucky Space Consortium.

Measuring about 4 inches cubed, with a volume of about 1 quart, and weighing in at about 2.2 pounds, the CubeSats are indeed very tiny. Skrobot said the CubeSat must conform to standard aerospace materials and operate without the use of propulsion.

"When you give students an opportunity to design an experiment in a confined space, they come up with great creativity," Skrobot said.

Montana State University's Explorer-1 Prime, or E1P, will study variations in the Van Allen radiation belts and will fly to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Explorer-1, America's first satellite that discovered the cloud of highly energetic electrons trapped in the Earth's magnetic field in 1958.

David Klumpar, a research professor of physics, said the cube will contain a miniature Geiger tube donated by Dr. Van Allen and it will be used to measure the intensity and variability of the electrons in low Earth orbit.

"It's very challenging to pack all of the required functionality of a full satellite into a volume about the size of a third of a loaf of bread," Klumpar said. "We hope that we accomplish the scientific and engineering goals of our mission. Getting to the launch pad achieves 99 percent of the educational objective, but having a working satellite on orbit is the real gold medal."

The University of Colorado's CubeSat is the Hermes-1. About 70 students contributed to the design, fabrication and testing of the system. Hermes' primary mission goal is to design a reproducible satellite bus that can be used for future missions. The science mission goal of Hermes is to test the viability of a high-speed communications system in the hopes of replicating the system on future CubeSats.

Kentucky Space Consortium designed the KySat-1 orbital satellite. Its primary mission is educational outreach to both university students who are designing the satellite, and K-12 students and teachers, ultimately providing opportunities for hands-on learning in the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, disciplines.

The KySat-1 outreach payload includes a low-resolution camera and a relatively high-powered UHF/VHF radio to allow satellite communication from small portable ground stations that can easily be set up on a playground or parking lot of a school. KySat also will carry a communications payload, a commercial 2.4 GHz high-speed transceiver, which will be tested for feasibility of use in a space environment.

"It's exciting to be able to do a project like this," Skrobot said.

The project, though, has not been wrought without challenges, including developing the process and a certification flight readiness process.

"Our primary concern is that they do not harm the launch vehicle or primary spacecraft," Skrobot said. "They must comply with all NASA LSP requirements and also follow orbital debris policies."

Skrobot said NASA created a pilot CubeSat Launch Initiative to determine which educational missions will fly, both at Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Currently, studies are under way for future P-POD missions in 2011 and 2012.
Linda Herridge
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center