First non-NASA satellite may launch era of low-cost space exploration

Yesterday at 5:30 in the morning, outer space came one small step closer to the common man. In the predawn darkness a University of Colorado (UC) group became the first scientists outside of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to take direct control of a US satellite.

This satellite is the Solar Mesospheric Explorer (SME) which was put into a near perfect orbit Oct. 6 and will be studying the dynamics of the ozone layer which extends from 20 to 50 miles overhead and protects Earth's surface from ultraviolet radiation.

Not only is SME the first to be controlled by non-NASA personnel, but may prove to be the prototype for the low-cost space missions required in an era of fiscal conservatism.

The atmosphere within the drab gray industrial building where SME Mission Control is located was jubilant as the tracking stations reported their satellite had achieved a near perfect orbit and telemetry from the satellite itself showed all the instruments on board working correctly.

The control room looks a bit homely and cobbled together when compared with the sophisticated operations at the large NASA centers. Its five computer screens are set into a shallow plywood "U". Its telephone receivers sit in crudely hollowed-out plastic foam cubes. But behind this modest exterior lies some innovative control techniques which have caught the eye of NASA and the Department of Defense.

"We are the first to use color to indicate the condition of various signals," says Elaine R. Hansen, mission director. Using a sophisticated computer program , the condition of the various spacecraft systems are displayed in green if they are within normal operating limits, yellow if the readings are marginal, and red if something is wrong. "We couldn't expect students to spend hours staring intently at columns of numbers and be so immersed in the project to know all the ranges," she explains.

The satellite will be run by a staff of 6 faculty and 14 students. For the students it is a job without academic credit like mowing lawns or working in the library. "I've had a number of nice jobs, things that look good on a resume, but I've never been involved with anything as exciting and interesting at this," says one of the undergraduate controllers, Jafar Nabkel. "For the first time I can really see where what I am learning can be put to use," continues the computer science student.

Besides being an umparalleled learning experience for the students, their presence is an example of the bare-bones approach being used by the UC space scientists. At $17 million, it is one of the least expensive scientific payloads NASA has launched in recent years. It was the most modest of the 150 -odd proposals submitted to NASA for an ozone-monitoring Experiment.

"We defined a specific scientific problem we wanted to solve ad then determined the specific set of instruments needed to do that, and nothing more," explains Charles Barth, director of the UC's Laboratory of Atmosperic and Space Physics and head of the SME program.

The quest is to determine precisely how ozone is created and destroyed in the upper atmosphere (or mesosphere).Ozone concentrations vary dramatically on a daily and seasonal basis. Atmospheric scientists believe they know the various chemical reactions which create and destroy ozone -- an unstable molecule made up of three oxygen atoms -- but simultaneous measurements of ozone concentration , incident sunlight, temperature, pressure, water vapor, and nitrogen oxide have not been made to quantify the relative importance of various reactions. This has become particulary important in the last few years because scientists believe that manmade chemicals may be depleting this vital atmospheric shield.

In the future, this low-cost approach could be extended to the study of other planets. At NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., Dr. Barth has studied the possibility of a Mars orbiter that would study one thing: water. Where is water concentrated on the Red Planet? How does it vay with season? While most planetary missions have been costing several hundred million dollars apiece, Dr. Barth says this Mars mission would cost about $78 million.

"The question is, 'does NASA want to do this? Do they want to do small things or big things?'" asked Dr. Barth, one of the pioneers in the field of planetary science.

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