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Students at MSU have built and launched a satellite to the ISS

Montana State University (MSU) is one of the US institutions that have successfully developed and launched more than ten spacecraft to space. Their latest project, the Ionosphere-Thermosphere Scanning Photometer for Ion-Neutral Studies (IT-SPINS) that has been in the works since 2015, was sent to the International Space Station (ISS).

The payload was carried by a cargo resupply rocket to the ISS. It will rest for a while before being propelled to Orbit. The satellite, assembled in the Space Science and Engineering Laboratory (SSEL) at MSU, will be on a six-month mission to evaluate the earth’s atmosphere’s properties at the edge of outer space.

The National Science Foundation granted $1million to MSU for this project, which attracted around 30 students from the SSEL.

“We allow students to take a lot of responsibility in developing the mission, designing and making the hardware, putting it all together, and then testing it to make sure it’ll survive the launch and work in space, “said David Klumper, SSEL director and research professor at MSU.

SSEL collaborated with SRI International, an independent non-profit research company, to build the satellite’s sensor. The satellite’s sensor will evaluate the UV light emitted by ions (particles) in the ionosphere and thermosphere. Ionosphere and thermosphere are geographical terms denoting the two topmost layers above the earth’s atmosphere.

This study will improve weather forecasts in space. Astronauts and researchers will be adequately prepared for space missions by analyzing the data collected from this satellite. Deviations in UV and X-ray radiations in the space atmosphere increase the number and concentration of ions, hindering satellites’ smooth movement.

Apart from the sensor built by SRI International, all other parts of the IT-SPINS were assembled and created by MSU students pursuing computer science and engineering majors. These include solar panels, batteries, communication hardware, and automated controls.

“It was a great experience, working in a small lab with people from all different disciplines. You really get to see the whole process,” said Nevin Leh, a former student who worked on this project as a software programmer. He created the software that commands the satellite, monitors its movement, and downloads data gathered by the satellites.

Staff at SSEL will monitor the satellite and download the information gathered. The MSU researchers will then examine the data with specialized software designed by the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, who also contributed to this project’s development.

The satellite was to be launched in 2020 but was halted courtesy of the Covid-19 pandemic. Some of the students who worked on it have since graduated and secured employment in space-inclined companies such as Northrop Grumman and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

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