A long-running program between Bowie State University and NASA has come to a crashing end, literally.
After eight years of BSU sending commands to a NASA satellite, the program ended Nov. 12, as the satellite fell to Earth. The expected eventual loss of the satellite ends a program where BSU managed a NASA satellite and provided around 50 students over the years a shot at learning how to operate a satellite.
The fall of NASA’s Solar, Anomalous and Magnetospheric Particle Explorer, or SAMPEX, satellite came after the 20-year-old satellite’s orbit decayed to the point that it fell to Earth, said Todd Watson, director of the Bowie State satellite operations and control center.
The loss of the satellite was disappointing, said Berthel Tate of Brandywine, who was one of the final eight students to work on SAMPEX.
“It’s kind of sad,” said the 2004 graduate of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt. “My invisible spaceship is no longer there.”
The satellite had been launched July 3,1992, with a mission of examining cosmic rays such as those emitted by supernovas and other phenomena. As the satellite survived its initial mission, it was put into extended service, where researchers continued to collect data as long as it kept working, Watson said. Bowie State University has been involved in the extended service mission since 1997 and has been mission control for the satellite since 2004, said Mona Kessel, a program scientist at NASA. The school has received roughly $300,000 per year to manage the satellite, she said.
“This was an educational outreach program,” Kessel said. “This was to help the students get excited about science.”
The program had been an eye-opener for graduate student Stephen Otunba of Bowie, who had been part of the last group of students working on the satellite.
“I used to Google things I’d hear about like black holes,” Otunba said. “I got into this program and realized I knew nothing [about the work of NASA].”
SAMPEX operations ranged from providing instructions to the satellite on when to turn on its instruments and record data to when to transmit that data to the ground control staff.
Students involved in the program were selected either by recommendations from other educators at the school or after expressing interest in the program, Watson said. Working on the project had been a pleasure, said Kwasi Acquaah, an undergraduate senior expecting to graduate next month.
“Since I was young, it’s always been my dream to be an astronaut, “said the 25-year-old.
Acquaah said he intends to pursue his dream, but if that doesn’t work out, he would be open to doing work similar to what he did in the control center.
After coming on board, students who vary from undergraduates to doctoral students, were trained in how to upload instructions to the satellite and manage the satellite, said Kevin Gross, a doctoral student who worked on the project for almost a decade and helped train fellow students.
Students who worked on SAMPEX didn’t get college credit for the work, but could use the experience to qualify for multiple certifications that NASA offers and expects satellite operators to have, Watson said.
The school is now looking at bringing in a new satellite to manage — either an older NASA satellite or perhaps a commercial one — however, that may take six months or longer to arrange, Watson said. Finding a partner willing to allow the school to manage a satellite isn’t a simple matter, Watson said.
“It's not like they're readily available,” he said.
For now, students will learn the same skills using archived data, Watson said.
“We want something small, something that is not big budget where a lot of scientists are expecting instantaneously their data,” Watson said.