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SCU Students to Operate NASA Satellite Missions After Liftoff

Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010


SANTA CLARA, Calif., – Nov. 18, 2010 – Santa Clara University students will run mission operations for two NASA satellites once launched into space. The satellites will be aboard a Minotaur IV rocket that is scheduled to blast off from Kodiak Island, Alaska on Friday, Nov. 19 at 5:24 p.m. PST.
The students will operate Organism/Organic Exposure to Orbital Stresses nanosatellite, known as O/OREOS, for NASA for a year and then for several more years for educational and engineering experiments. The goal of the O/OREOS mission is to be able to conduct low-cost astrobiology science experiments on autonomous nanosatellites in space. Scientists will apply the knowledge they gain from O/OREOS to plan future experiments in the space environment to study how exposure to space changes organic molecules and biology. These experiments will help answer questions about the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe.
O/OREOS includes a novel de-orbit device that was designed by an SCU graduate student. The device accelerates its de-orbit, which has been an issue in trying reduce the amount of junk in space.
The SCU team will also operate NanoSail-D2, which is a solar sail that could potentially change spacecraft travel and the way NASA brings down old satellites, thereby cleaning up space junk. The NanoSail-D2 will eject from the Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology Satellite, or FASTSAT. This will test the ability to deploy an enormous but fragile spacecraft from extremely small and compact structures. When fully deployed, the NanoSail-D2 has a surface area of more than 100 square feet and is made of a material that’s no thicker than single-ply tissue paper.
After deployment, scientists will study the NanoSail’s ability to capture constantly streaming solar particles called photons. Similar to the way wind pushes a sailboat through water, solar sails rely on sunlight to propel vehicles through space. In this project, the sail captures photons that buildup over time to propel spacecraft in space.
SCU will operate NanoSail-D2 for about two weeks at which point it will lose speed, drop from orbit, and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere after about 100 days. NASA researchers hope NanoSail-D2 will one day be used to bring old satellites out of space.
SCU students developed all of the communication stations, which are deployed throughout the U.S. and operated through the Internet. They also developed the mission control center, wrote all the software, tested the satellite, and wrote all of the operating procedures.
Once the satellites are in space, the SCU team will control the spacecraft in orbit, sending commands to them and retrieving science data that will then be delivered back to NASA scientists and engineers.
The SCU team also provided all of the flight computers for another mission involving two more satellites, called FASTRAC, which are also ready for launch on the same rocket. FASTRAC stands for Formation Autonomous Spacecraft with Thruster, Relnav, Attitude and Crosslink, and it will demonstrate cutting edge technology for satellite formation flying capabilities.
The public can follow the status of both operations on SCU’s Mission Dashboard:
Santa Clara University is the only university in the U.S. to do all mission operations and ground segment development for NASA satellites as part of a student program. Some of those missions include GeneSat in 2006 and PharmaSat in 2009.
“This is one of the best possible hands-on, interdisciplinary, and professional learning experiences available to engineering students anywhere. They are working as peers with NASA and industry scientists and engineers on a real-world mission, using their engineering skills to provide a critical service to NASA,” says Christopher Kitts, a mechanical engineering professor and director of SCU’s Robotics Systems Laboratory.
In order to become a certified member of the NASA operations team, SCU students take a novel satellite operations course. The team includes students ranging from freshman to doctoral levels and span across multiple departments in the School of Engineering.
About Santa Clara University

Santa Clara University is a comprehensive Jesuit, Catholic university located 40 miles south of San Francisco in California’s Silicon Valley. Santa Clara offers its more than 8,800 students rigorous undergraduate programs in arts and sciences, business, and engineering, plus master’s degrees in a number of professional fields, law degrees, and engineering and theology doctorates. Distinguished by one of the highest graduation rates among all U.S. master’s universities, Santa Clara educates leaders of competence, conscience, and compassion grounded in faith-inspired values. Founded in 1851, Santa Clara is California’s oldest operating institution of higher education. For more information, see


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Tags: Minotaur, NanoSail-D, NASA, O/OREOS, rocket, satellites

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