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11/01/1995 08:00:00

Student-Designed Satellite Set for Launch November 4

PASADENA—A satellite built by undergraduates working with Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) engineers will be launched on the morning of November 4 from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the central California coast. This date is fairly firm, but has slipped recently and is not carved in stone.

Called SURFSAT, the satellite will fill a need for a Deep Space Network (DSN) calibration satellite. It will emit weak signals at three microwave frequencies, imitating a deep-space probe. The faint signals will allow testing of Very Long Baseline Interferometry tracking stations, and aid in research and development work in deep-space communications at the Deep Space Network, which tracks planetary probes such as Voyager and Galileo.

"The project has provided an excellent opportunity for students to work with space technology and to learn low-cost mission operations," said Joel Smith, project manager at JPL.

More than 60 students from 14 colleges in the United States and the United Kingdom have worked on SURFSAT during summers since 1987, as part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) program at the California Institute of Technology. Each summer between five and 13 students have worked with a JPL mentor on aspects of the design, testing, and assembly of the satellite, and for the last few years work has continued year round. The SURF students came from the following colleges and universities: Arizona State; Caltech; Kingston University, England; Occidental College; Oklahoma State; Pomona College; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Stanford; the University of Alaska; UC Berkeley; UCLA; UC San Diego; the University of New Mexico; and the University of Texas at Austin.

SURFSAT is the secondary payload on a NASA rocket that will boost another object, the Canadian RADARSAT spacecraft, into orbit. The student satellite, consisting of two aluminum boxes measuring roughly 12 by 12 by 16 inches, is permanently bolted to the second-stage booster of a NASA/McDonnell Douglas Delta II rocket. It will settle into a polar orbit at an altitude of about 750 miles, where it will be powered by its own solar cells with no electrical connection to the second-stage structure. Scientists plan to use the satellite, whose final cost is estimated at less than $3 million, for the next year as a NASA test vehicle. Funding for the project came from NASA's Space Communications Division and Astrophysics Division.

Caltech's SURF program allows undergraduates to pursue individual research projects in a tutorial relationship with a member of the Caltech faculty or JPL technical staff for 10 weeks during the summer. SURF students propose research projects in an imitation of the grant-seeking process. Faculty committees then review the proposals, and SURF bases its awards upon their recommendations. Students submit technical reports at the end of the summer and give short presentations about their research at SURF Seminar Day in the autumn. As with any fellowship, the students receive a stipend for their work. In 1995, Caltech's SURF program had 246 students participating.

SURFSAT is scheduled for launch at 6:22 a.m. PST on Saturday, November 4. NASA Select television will show the launch from around 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m.

Written by John Avery