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NASA hands over control of satellite to SCU students

Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2007

SANTA CLARA, Calif.– Feb. 20, 2007. This month, in an unprecedented move by NASA, total control of the GeneSat-1 satellite will be given to Santa Clara University engineering students. A ceremony celebrating the handover will be at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 21 at Santa Clara University’s School of Engineering, Room 326 (Thomas J. Bannan Building).

GeneSat-1, which is still in space, is a project that SCU students and scientists at NASA Ames Research Center Moffett Field, Calif., have been working on for years. SCU students, faculty, and staff developed the entire command and control system for GeneSat-1, and made significant contributions to the design and test of the satellite itself. Students wrote the programs to track the satellite and run the experiments in space. SCU will use the satellite as a tool for training students to operate the upcoming PharmaSat mission, for performing long-term trend analyses of various components and subsystems, and as a test bed for studying the performance of the communication system used on the vehicle.

On Dec. 16, 2006, a dozen graduate and undergraduate students from the Santa Clara Robotic Systems Laboratory took control of all mission operations for the NASA GeneSat-1 satellite, which launched from Wallops Island Flight Facility. “All the information they receive is relayed from the satellite,” said John Hines, NASA project manager. “So without the students, nothing would get back.”

Operating as a secondary payload, GeneSat-1 is the most advanced autonomous biological device ever flown. The primary experiment, which involved growing several samples of E. coli over a period of four days in order to assess the effects of microgravity on their metabolism, will help scientists understand the impact of the spaceflight environment on living systems and will help in the development of techniques to counteract the harmful effects of radiation and reduced gravity on humans traveling in future space missions. Results of the experiments were transmitted back to Earth, requiring no specimen return.

NASA approved the SCU student-based team to run all mission operations for their device—satellite commanding, telemetry analysis, tracking, etc. The success of the mission exceeded all expectations, with audible contact being made during the satellite’s first flyover of the local area approximately 90 minutes after its launch; verification of the satellite’s perfect state of health and two-way command capability established before the end of the first day; and download of all baseline biological data from the completed 96-hour experiment distributed to the mission team and to the general public before the end of the first week of flight—“an absolute first for NASA missions,” according to SCU Robotics Lab Director Christopher Kitts.

SCU faculty and students look forward to continuing their involvement with the NASA team on the follow-on mission, PharmaSat. “This has been a wonderful experience for our students, the Robotics Lab, and SCU,” Kitts said. “It has allowed us to blend solid engineering research with graduate/undergraduate design education through an incredibly exciting and real-world project in which we’ve been collaborating with leading NASA/industry/university scientists and engineers.”

For more information, visit the SCU “mission dashboard” and the project Web sites:

About Santa Clara  University

Santa Clara University, a comprehensive Jesuit, Catholic university located 40 miles south of San Francisco in California’s Silicon Valley, offers its 8,377 students rigorous undergraduate curricula in arts and sciences, business, and engineering, plus master’s and law degrees and engineering Ph.D.s. Distinguished nationally by one of the highest graduation rates among all U.S. master’s universities, California’s oldest operating higher-education institution demonstrates faith-inspired values of ethics and social justice. For more information, see

Tags: NASA

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