Built from Scratch


Montana State University Space Science and Engineering Laboratory

Location: Bozeman, Mont.

Established: 2000

Top Official: David Klumpar, director

Annual Budget: $2 million

Personnel: 6 full-time scientists and engineers

Mission: To enable students and faculty in the science and engineering disciplines to conduct space science research through the development of space hardware instrumentation.


SAN FRANCISCO — When David Klumpar arrived at Montana State University to establish the Space Science and Engineering Lab in November 2000, the retired Lockheed Martin aerospace engineer was greeted by eager students.

“I walked into my new office in Bozeman, turned around and there were four graduate students who said, ‘We heard we are going to build satellites,’” Klumpar said.

That eager student work force combined with a lack of space hardware or facilities convinced Klumpar that the only possible course of action was to begin building CubeSats, miniature satellites that weigh 1 kilogram or less and measure 10 centimeters on a side.

“I had spent 45 years doing experimental space physics,” Klumpar said. “I knew instrumentation. I knew what big satellites could do. And I knew that we couldn’t start doing that from day one in Montana.”

Nevertheless, Klumpar had some familiarity with small satellites and was eager to begin experimenting with them. He also was eager to offer college students opportunities to build spacecraft.

During his sophomore year at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Klumpar began working in the laboratory of physicist James Van Allen, the man responsible for discovering the radiation belts that bear his name. By the time he was a junior, Klumpar was building spaceflight hardware.

For Montana State’s first CubeSat experiment, Klumpar decided to replicate the experiment Van Allen conducted in 1958. That mission, known as Explorer-1, used a Geiger counter inside a satellite to measure radiation. “I said, ‘Lets fly a Geiger counter just like Van Allen did … and demonstrate that with modern technology we can do it in a CubeSat,’” Klumpar said.

That satellite, Montana’s Earth Orbiting Pico-Explorer, was launched in 2006 on a Russian Dnepr rocket that crashed shortly after takeoff in Kazakhstan.

An improved version of the satellite, called Explorer-1 Prime, is scheduled for launch Nov. 22 on the Taurus XL rocket that is also scheduled to carry NASA’s Glory climate-monitoring satellite into orbit. Explorer-1 Prime was one of three CubeSats selected by NASA as part of its Educational Launch of Nanosatellites initiative. The other two satellites scheduled to accompany Glory into space are CubeSats developed by the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Kentucky Space, a nonprofit consortium of universities, public and private organizations based in Lexington.

SSEL researchers are developing Explorer-1 Prime with funding from the Montana Space Grant Consortium and Lockheed Martin Information Systems and Global Solutions. In addition, Utah State’s Space Dynamics Laboratory is providing environmental testing for the satellite, Klumpar said.

In addition to flying Geiger counters, SSEL teams are developing experiments for spacecraft that weigh between half a kilogram and 50 kilograms, Klumpar said. Projects proposed by SSEL often focus on how small satellites can work together in constellations or swarms to provide useful scientific information.

“Instead of building one large spacecraft, let me build 100 small spacecraft each with a targeted sensor or sensor suite distributed throughout the volume of space,” Klumpar said. “Then you have the capability of making measurements from many different places. It’s the synergy of the satellites working together that leads to new insights.”

SSEL scientists are working with a team from Boston University to build two CubeSats for a National Science Foundation  program to study space weather and conduct atmospheric research. Those two satellites, which are scheduled for launch in 2012, will work in conjunction to investigate electron microbursts in the Van Allen radiation belts.

Another SSEL team is building a satellite that weighs approximately 50 kilograms for the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) University Nanosatellite program. That satellite, known as Space Buoy-2, is designed to gather data on the ionosphere. The Montana Space Grant Consortium is helping to sponsor the project in conjunction with the AFRL and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Attracting sponsorship has been critical to the success of SSEL, according to Loren Acton, a physicist who conducted solar research in 1985 as a payload specialist on NASA’s Spacelab-2 space shuttle mission. Acton worked at Lockheed’s Palo Alto Research Laboratory, before accepting early retirement in 1993 to return to his alma mater, Montana State, to teach physics. Once there, he began making plans to establish SSEL.

“I’m pleased with its success,” Acton said, “but a bit chastened to realize how difficult it is to keep it funded.”

Acton has continued his solar physics research and helped build a Solar Physics Group that conducts work for NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. “We are probably one of the largest and most active solar physics groups at any university in the country,” said MSU solar physicist Charles Kankelborg.

That group is operating the X-ray Telescope and analyzing data as part of the U.S.-Japanese Hinode mission. The group also is involved in planning observations and data analysis for NASA’s recently launched Solar Dynamics Observatory’s Atmospheric Imaging Assembly.

With funding from NASA’s solar and heliophysics program, the Solar Physics Group also plans to launch in 2011 a sounding rocket payload to investigate extreme ultraviolet radiation, Kankelborg said.

To learn how energy moves through the sun’s atmosphere, the group is developing an optical system for an experiment called the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, which was selected by NASA in 2009 as part of the space agency’s Small Explorer competition. For that project, the Montana Solar Physics Group is working with team leader Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center of Palo Alto, Calif. NASA’s Small Explorer program is designed to support missions that can be conducted for $105 million or less. That funding does not include a launch provided by NASA.