Mission control, all systems are go

The launch came just before sunrise, the clouds turning pink against the deep blue sky above the Virginia shore. With the roar from a quarter million pounds of thrust, the Minotaur rocket was airborne, lofting into the heavens a pair of tiny satellites. One of them is the most autonomous biological device ever flown. At its controls: Santa Clara engineering students.

NASA’s GeneSat-1 went into orbit on Dec. 16, carrying a non-lethal strain of E. coli bacteria. SCU students used software that they had designed to control the satellite from the mission operations center at NASA Ames, including satellite command, telemetry analysis, and tracking. That meant getting up at 2 a.m. and being focused on critical tasks, says SCU engineering graduate student Mike Rasay. “The weight of the project was sitting on our shoulders,” he says.

GeneSat-1 is small—about the size of a shoebox—which puts it in the “nano” satellite category. But this little satellite is playing an outsized role. “It is a technology precursor for a series of more advanced biological satellite missions that will follow over the next several years,” says SCU Robotics Lab Director Christopher Kitts.

Scientists used the satellite to study the long-term effects of radiation and space on a living organism. With plans for astronauts to return to the moon and travel to Mars in the coming decades, data gleamed from GeneSat-1 could prove invaluable.

The biology experiments are finished, but the satellite is expected to stay aloft for another year—and engineering experiments will last as long as the satellite is in orbit. And when all primary science and engineering mission requirements have been met, the satellite will be turned over to the SCU Robotics Lab.

GeneSat project manager John Hines notes that the students have been working on the same level with senior staff at NASA. And SCU students and faculty will continue working with NASA in the months ahead as they prepare for the follow-on mission, PharmaSat, tentatively set for launch at the end of 2007.

For links to the “mission dashboard” and more, visit genesat1.engr.scu.edu/dashboard. KCS & SBS

post-image The nanosatellite in orbit. Photo: Charles Barry
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