When Senator John Glenn of Ohio takes off on the Space Shuttle this fall, most people will be watching to see the oldest man ever to blast off into space. But students at the Naval Postgraduate School will be more interested in the Discovery''s cargo; a satellite designed and built over the last nine years.
The 19-inch satellite began the first leg of its journey yesterday when it was shipped to NASA''s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. There it will undergo testing and inspections before being sent to NASA''s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The master model-maker of NPS'' Space Systems Academic Group (SSAG) plans to be at Cape Canaveral to watch the Oct. 29 lift-off. It will be Glenn Harrell''s second time at a launch but he says this will be even more thrilling. "I got to make that and that''s incredible.''''
More than 60 students have also had a hand in creating the Petite Amateur Navy Satellite (PANSAT). What they''ve created is a 120-pound satellite that will act as an "orbiting mailbox." Messages can be uploaded to the tumbling satellite and then stored, to be downloaded to another part of the world within the 95-minute orbit time. What makes this satellite transmission unique is how it uses the electro-magnetic spectrum. Instead of using narrow band transmission like the AM/FM radio, PANSAT takes the signal and spreads it out to such a point that it disappears below the noise level. The result? A signal that is undetectable and not easily jammed. One function might be rescuing downed pilots. A pilot could pinpoint his location through the geo-positioning satellite and then uplink the information to the orbiting PANSAT, without the risk of detection.
These cutting-edge breakthroughs are almost commonplace in the academic halls of the Navy school, although there was no "goal" of constructing a payload for the shuttle. "We''re not in the business of building satellites, we''re in the business of educating students," says Rudolf Panholzer, chairman of the SSAG. "That the end result of the project is a satellite is almost incidental. If it never worked, it would have been okay because it was a learning opportunity."
But it does work. Students from different master''s degree programs have spent years creating PANSAT, or as it''s called around the lab, "the big basketball." "There are things that have never been done before," says Harrell. "You can''t go to Orchard Supply Hardware and get what you want. You have to custom make the parts." That requires extreme precision.
The satellite has been vigorously tested to stand up to the rigors of space. It''s been vibrated in a machine as if it were going through a launch. And it''s been interned in a thermal vacuum chamber, which subjects the parts to "simulated space conditions, including temperatures 15 degrees Celsius below zero and 60 degrees Celsius above zero. The "shake and the bake," laughs Panholzer.
Panholzer, who taught at Stanford for seven years before coming to NPS, has high praise for the creators of PANSAT. "All the students here are professionals who are extremely dedicated. I look at students here as peers and partners. They bring as much to the table as the professors do."
Most students who worked on PANSAT are back in their military careers. A team of staff engineers helped keep things on course. "They''re the ones who drive the train down the tracks, the students jump on and off," says Panholzer.
Not everyone involved will travel to Florida to watch the launch. David Rigmaiden, the team''s electronic engineer, will stay behind to staff the ground station at NPS, tracking PANSAT''s movement through the sky. He and his colleagues Jim Horning, Ron Phelps, and Dan Sakoda have been putting in lots of overtime, double-checking every bolt and computer program to ensure success. But the engineer won''t be sad to see PANSAT leave the shop. "It''s like you have kids and you''ve raised them for 18 or 19 years," says Rigmaiden, laughing. "You want them to leave the nest, so you start distancing yourself."
The "mailbox in the sky" is scheduled to be deployed early in the 10-day mission and then NPS staffers will begin transmitting messages to the orbiting bulletin board.
There''s several ideas already on the drawing board for the next learning experience. One possibility is the "satellite of the future, where we''ll be rolling it out like a paper towel in space, " predicts Panholzer. The wider the receiver aperture means a greater ability to capture weak signals. Currently, there are no special plans to have a Space Shuttle launch party this October at the Navy school. But you can be sure there will be plenty of eyes turned skyward watching 77-year-old John Glenn and his flying buddy, PANSAT. cw