Ice satellite burns up

Artist's impression of ICEsat

ICEsat spent seven years in Earth orbit, gathering valuable data on polar regions ice sheets and sea ice.

A NASA satellite has met a fiery end as controllers directed it to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.

The satellite, known as the Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite, or ICESat, orbited Earth for seven years, gathering valuable data on the polar regions and helping scientists develop a better understanding of ice sheets and sea ice dynamics.

University of Colorado at Boulder undergraduates, who have been helping to control five NASA satellites from campus, participated in the unusual decommissioning.

The control team at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP)—made up primarily of undergraduates who work side-by-side with LASP professionals—uploaded commands for the satellite to burn its remaining fuel and switched off the transmitter.

The satellite successfully re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on August 30 and largely burned up, with pieces of debris falling into the Barents Sea—part of the Arctic Ocean north of Norway and Russia—said LASP Missions Operations and Data Systems Director Bill Possel. Built by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., ICESat spacecraft worked perfectly throughout the entire mission, said Possel.

According to Darrin Osborne, LASP flight director for ICESat, the students had specific procedures to follow during the satellite decommissioning.

“They ran calculations to determine where the spacecraft was located and made predictions for NASA ground stations that tracked it,” he said. “The students did this seven days a week until the decommission was complete.”

University of Colorado LASP students and staff

University of Colorado students and staff helped NASA decommission the ICEsat satellite.

Students in charge

The LASP team continues to operate four satellites for NASA from LASP’s Space Technology Building. They include the Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment, or SORCE mission, a US$100 million satellite designed and built by LASP to study how the Sun’s variation affects Earth’s climate.

A second satellite, the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere mission, or AIM, is looking at polar clouds that may be related to increases in carbon dioxide and methane in Earth’s atmosphere.

The LASP control team also operates the US$600 million Kepler satellite, a NASA spacecraft that has identified more than 700 potential planets orbiting other stars since its launch in 2009, as well as the QuikSCAT satellite that measures global wind speeds and directions on Earth, helping to improve weather forecasting and predict tropical cyclones.

LASP is one of a handful of institutes in the world that provide undergraduates the training and certification needed to operate NASA spacecraft, said Possel. LASP employs 20 undergraduates as LASP satellite operators, where they work for at least three years.

The opportunity to assist with the decommissioning of a spacecraft is rare. The last time a NASA satellite re-entered Earth’s atmosphere was in January 2002, when the Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer spacecraft was decommissioned.

Adapted from information issued by University of Colorado at Boulder / Glenn Asakawa / NASA.

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