Hopkins to control NASA satellite University scientists to guide observatory on three-year mission

September 14, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Mission Control is not just for Houston, the Goddard Space Flight Center, or even NASA anymore.

After NASA launches its new FUSE astronomy satellite from the Kennedy Space Center in February, it will switch control of the $108 million mission to a control room in the physics building at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

There, scientists and professional operators seated at two rows of computers beneath a video wall will guide the observatory 24 hours a day on its three-year mission.

"It is the first time such a large mission has been built and operated by an academic department of a university," said Hopkins Professor Warren Moos, principal investigator for FUSE (Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer).

It is an outgrowth of policy shifts at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration giving university scientists more control over the design and costs of their space-based research. In the bargain, NASA hopes to provide educational opportunities for students and maybe save some money.

In July, for example, graduate and undergraduate students at University of Maryland, College Park's Flight Dynamics and Control Laboratory took the reins of NASA's 6-year-old SAMPEX (Solar, Anomalous and Magnetospheric Particle Explorer) satellite.

They are now performing navigational and orbital maneuvers for SAMPEX, a space radiation observatory.

Bowie monitors satellite

At Bowie State University, students and professional operators have taken over the monitoring of SAMPEX's routine flight operations and telemetry.

In June, NASA chose the University of California at Berkeley to design, build and control a $72 million solar flare observatory scheduled for launch in 2000. "It is a new trend," said Tom Stengle, head of the Flight Dynamics Analysis Branch at Goddard. He helped arrange the transfer of SAMPEX operations to Bowie State and College Park.

An 'educational opportunity'

"We saw it as a tremendous educational opportunity," he said. After studying orbital mechanics in a classroom, engineering students can try their hand at determining a spacecraft's orbit. "It's also an opportunity to get universities thinking about what kind of research and development support they can provide us," he said.

But it's also a money thing.

George Sonneborn, NASA's FUSE project scientist, said space scientists clamored for years for more frequent access to space than NASA's big-budget missions and space shuttle launches were providing.

NASA finally agreed. But in return for more flights into space, NASA insisted that scientists come up with smaller, cheaper missions, with "fixed" budgets -- no cost overruns. They were then given increased freedom to design the missions accordingly. One target for cuts was spacecraft operations. "If operations' costs grow, they eat into the scientific analysis budget, so there's an incentive to keep costs under control," Sonneborn said.

'A test case'

Perhaps control centers in a small university environment would be more efficient than big institutions like Goddard and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "FUSE is a test case," Sonneborn said.

Moos and Dennis McCarthy, FUSE project manager at Hopkins, took NASA's $350 million FUSE budget and restructured it, offering to develop the spacecraft for $108 million. Hopkins would preside over everything except the launch -- from design to procurement, construction and spacecraft operations.

Satellite completed

NASA bought it.

Just three years later, scientists at Hopkins, at French and Canadian space agencies and other U.S. universities, have completed the satellite. Sonneborn said the team "really pulled victory out of the jaws of defeat."

The 18-foot, 2,700-pound spacecraft was assembled at Hopkins' Applied Physics Lab in Laurel. It is now undergoing pre-launch tests at Goddard.

Of the total cost, McCarthy said, $96 million will have been spent in Maryland. That includes $21 million for satellite operations at Hopkins' Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy.

'Far-ultraviolet' light

Once safely rocketed to its planned 480-mile-high orbit, FUSE will begin observations in the "far-ultraviolet," a portion of the light spectrum invisible from the ground and beyond the range of the Hubble Space Telescope's instruments.

It will be far faster, and 10,000 times more sensitive than NASA's last far-ultraviolet observatory, called Copernicus, launched in the 1970s.

The craft will exchange data and instructions with the control room in Baltimore during brief passes over a ground station Hopkins has built in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico.

'A flood of new data'

The rest of the time, FUSE will be on its own, peering as far as a billion light years into space. One light year is equivalent to about 5.88 trillion miles.

FUSE scientists plan to measure the density of intergalactic gases, seeking clues to whether the universe holds enough matter and mass to eventually brake or reverse its expansion.

They also hope to trace the circulatory systems that disperse new elements throughout the galaxy -- elements such as carbon, iron and silicon that are forged in stellar explosions, and from which planets and life have evolved.

"There's going to be a flood of new data," said Moos. "There are investigations that will take place that I haven't dreamed of."

Pub Date: 9/14/98

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