Two Utah State University satellites ready to be shot into space

By Nancy Van Valkenburg
October 19, 2011

Courtesy photo Erik Stromberg, of the Utah State University Space Dynamics Laboratory, works on a satellite with white gloves. The two DICE satellites will be shot into the ionosphere next week to collect data about space weather.

Courtesy photo Utah State University Space Dynamics Laboratory will have two DICE satellites shot into the ionosphere next week to collect data about space weather and solar winds.

OGDEN -- After years of research and planning, it's not exactly a cosmic crapshoot.

Next week, Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory will see its two satellites shot into the upper atmosphere. The miniature satellites are the result of USU's Dynamic Ionosphere Cubesat Experiment.

The DICE satellites, named Farkle and Yahtzee, will be released in the ionosphere by the United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, set to lift off Oct. 27 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

"The students had a lot of fun with this project, and we're all very excited to see it go up and to track the data," said Charles Swenson, a USU engineering professor and director of the school's Center for Space Engineering.

The project goal is to collect data about space weather and the solar winds that regularly tear away pieces of the ionosphere.

It's not a new topic of study. Scientists around the world have collected information and hope to understand space weather and whether it poses any long-term threat to Earth.

It is USU's method of data collection, with small, low-powered satellites, that makes DICE revolutionary:

  • The average full-sized satellite is about the size of a car, costs $200 million or more to build and needs a major power source in order to collect and return data.
  • The DICE satellites together are about the size of a loaf of bread, cost $1.2 million to build and have a radio system with technology similar to that found in a cell phone.

"One will lead the other, going through and measuring wind and density, then the other will come through, allowing us to see how readings have changed or how consistent they are," Swenson said.

"Up to now, satellites have been launched as singles, which made it difficult to measure the rate at which conditions can change in space.

"Imagine trying to measure how the oceans move by putting in one buoy to collect information, then imagine the benefit of placing two, 15, 20 or 200 buoys spread in the ocean. We are pioneering a capable system of space weather buoys."

USU is collaborating on the project with ASTRA, the Colorado-based space technology firm, and with Salt Lake City's L-3 Communications Systems, which helped build the radio system. NASA and the National Science Foundation also are partners.

Erik Stromberg, a USU junior in electrical engineering, has been working on the project for more than two years.

"It has allowed us to apply what we were learning in school to real-life problems," said the 21-year-old deputy program manager of the project.

"The team gained a lot of perspective on what would work and what wouldn't, and on how to approach problems, solve them, then verify they had been solved. We worked with manufacturers and vendors, and gained a perspective we never would have from textbooks."

The team already is discussing how to improve future versions of the satellites.

"This mission's success will be the baseline for missions to come," Stromberg said. "We're already considering what we want to do on the next round. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything."

The satellites are in California, awaiting launch at 2:47 a.m. Pacific Time on Oct. 27.

"They will be bolted on the side of the rocket going up," Swenson said. "We and about four other groups are hitching a ride. Once it gets into space, the upper stage of the rocket will turn around and drop us off in the ionosphere."

Then the team will communicate with the DICE satellites, command them to orient themselves correctly and to extend wires with sensors to measure wind and atmospheric density.

Swenson said the data stream should last six months to two or more years.

Farkle and Yahtzee will travel in an elliptical orbit ranging from 250 to 500 miles above Earth's surface, and could stay in orbit 12 to 15 years.

H. Scott Hinton, dean of the USU College of Engineering, said the project will prepare students for employment in their scientific fields.

"Students need to have access to cutting-edge projects to prepare them for the global market. DICE has been a tremendous program to do that."