SDL sets sights on future – New projects loom as world convenes for USU's satellite conference

By Kevin Opsahl
The Herald Journal
August 8, 2011

Niel Holt, director of the Space Dynamics Laboratory, discusses some of their recent accomplishments Thursday morning. (Tyler Larson/ The Herald Journal)

NORTH LOGAN – As more than 350 organizations ranging from the U.S. Defense Department to the European Space Agency descend on Logan for the next four days, Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory is looking ahead at new projects.

SDL's main focus for the fall, in terms of launches, is the Dynamic Ionosphere CubeSat Experiment, known as DICE. These two identical spinning spacecraft will measure plasma density and electric fields. DICE is a collaborative effort funded by the National Science Foundation.

"We're pretty excited about DICE. We don't know a lot about the geo-magnetic storms that come and affect the ionosphere," SDL Director Niel Holt said during an interview at his North Logan office Thursday. "We do know that these storms enhance the plasma density that affect communications, surveillance, our navigation systems. So we really want to understand that better, so we can understand when these storms happen, (and) what causes them. Communication and navigation systems are pretty critical."

The pair of satellites is being built by students, but SDL was asked by USU to build it. DICE should be launched in October, according to USU Research Foundation communications director Eric Warren.

Clemson University students will analyze the data produced when the satellites are in orbit.

At any given time, SDL has approximately 100 graduate and undergraduate students working with them, Holt said.

The Small Satellite Conference at USU - expected to bring in 1,100 developers, visionaries, sponsors and enthusiasts from more than 20 countries - focuses squarely on SDL's mission, which is to research and develop small sensor and satellite technologies in the military and science fields.

The theme for the conference is "25 Years of Progress," so it's more than likely SDL will have stories to share about its accomplishments in the past year.

The most notable small satellite endeavor is the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer - or WISE - satellite, which found 149 near-Earth objects and snapped millions of photographs during its year-long run from January 2010 to January 2011.

The Government Accountability Office conducted a study on large satellite programs this year, and WISE was the only project that received a passing grade. Rarely is there a satellite program that is both on time and on budget, said Holt.

"Beyond that, it's such an incredible discovery and addition to the science community, with the amount of data and objects of their findings, that it's exciting," Hold said.

Even though it was planned for WISE to shut off after its year-long mission, Holt said the lab will continue to push forward some of the same technologies that made WISE successful to find new things about Earth's weather and atmosphere.

SDL also said goodbye to the space shuttle launch program that ran for 30 years. Endeavor, on its final mission in July, delivered the Digital Imaging Star Camera, or DISC, built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory, to the International Space Station. USU sent 11 research payloads into orbit on four separate shuttles between 1982 and 2001, according to the USU College of Science.

"The manned space shuttle program of NASA has had a big impact on everyone," Holt said. "It's impacting a lot of people throughout Northern Utah and the country. We felt a little of that impact. ... I will say we've put more instruments on the space shuttle than any other university in the world. We're going to be looking for other ways to get those instruments into space."

Still, since SDL has participated in more than 400 missions, the loss of the shuttle program is not devastating, considering their mission to research and develop small satellites, which don't always go up on manned missions to space.