USU-built satellites launched into space

By Kevin Opsahl
The Herald Journal
October 29, 2011

A United Launch Alliance Delta II lifts off from Space Launch Complex-2 with NASA’s NPP spacecraft Friday at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. (Photo courtesy United Launch Alliance)

A pair of satellites built primarily by Utah State University students reportedly made a successful launch onboard a rocket Friday at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The launch of DICE occurred at 2:48 a.m. local time, according to, a popular online space news website. Balanced atop more than 700,000 pounds of thrust, the 12-story vehicle pitched southward and rapidly accelerated, breaking the sound barrier in just 32 seconds, the website reported.

Several USU students, faculty members and others watched in amazement.

"It was exciting and thrilling," said Josh Martineau, a USU graduate engineering student, who worked on DICE and watched the launch live on the Internet. "It was also a proud moment knowing something I had in my hands was going into space. It wasn't a dream; it was happening."

DICE stands for Dynamic Ionosphere Cubesat Experiment.

The two identical spinning spacecraft - about the size of a loaf of bread - were "hitching a ride" with the United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket simply because it had extra room, USU Research Foundation officials say. Satellites from five other universities, including the Minnesota Institute of Technology, were also onboard.

The rocket launched on Friday as part of the NPOESS Preparatory Project mission to collect data on atmospheric and sea surface temperatures, humidity, and land and ocean biological activity - but DICE's mission has nothing to do with that effort.

Instead, DICE will measure plasma density and electric fields to determine the "how and why" of variations in ionosphere plasma density that affect the performance of communications, surveillance and navigation systems on Earth and in space, according to Charles Swenson, a USU Engineering professor who mentored USU students working on the project.

Scientists also hope to understand if space weather poses any long-term threat to Earth.

DICE was the result of a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation in 2009, giving USU more than a dozen USU students across several engineering disciplines the opportunity to build, test, launch and - eventually - collect data from DICE.

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.

The data stream should last six months to two or more years.

"When engineers graduate, they have to know how to build things and make things work," said Scott Hinton, dean of the College of Engineering. "So to do a project like this - that has the requirements to operate in space - requires a very defined process for quality and takes a lot of tests."

He added, "This is a wonderful experience for them and they're going to do into a job interview knowing they've done something 90 percent of other students in their position have never done."

The fact that the launch was successful gives USU an advantage when it applies for grants in the future, Hinton said.

Martineau joined the DICE effort in August 2010 and worked on it right up until the satellites were delivered to California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, for final launch readiness.

The satellites required many redesigns, he said, including one very to the original launch deadline of Oct. 27.

"In real life, things are different than what you want on paper," Martineau said. "We had to accommodate for unexpected situations," including work on the satellite's radio communication and mechanical system responsible for deploying its antennas.

The launch had been scrapped more than once because officials at Vandenberg needed more time to work on the Delta 2 rocket.

Martineau said he and other students were nervous leading up to the actual launch.

"It's either a success or a failure; it either works or it doesn't," Martineau said. "And it can be messy to get to that point."

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