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USU Get Away Special Team Set to Monitor Solar Effects on Satellites

Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013

graphic illustration of POPACS system

Graphic of the POPACS system shows three spheres (rightmost partially obscured) in a spring-loaded canister designed to eject the satellites into orbit. USU students will monitor the satellites and report findings to a national database.

USU Get Away Special logo

The Get Away Special 'GAS' Team is USU’s student space research group. The team is largely responsible for one of Utah State’s best known achievements: USU has sent more student-built experiments into space than any university in the world.

In a unique public-private partnership, Utah State University students will track three small satellites in low Earth orbit by telescope and report their findings to a national database.

“This is an opportunity to involve students in a real-world — or should we say ‘out-of-this-world’ — project aimed at protecting satellites from the orbit-straying effects of space weather,” says Jan Sojka, head of USU’s Department of Physics and a lead investigator on the project.

SpaceX, a private space transport company, is set to launch its Falcon 9 rocket into space Sept. 10 from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. On board is POPACS, a project led and funded by Gil Moore, former USU faculty member and longtime supporter of USU’s Get Away Special student space research team.

POPACS, short for “Polar Orbiting Passive Atmospheric Calibration Spheres,” is a project designed to measure changes in the density of the upper atmosphere in response to solar flares. The project consists of three spherical satellites, each measuring about 4 inches in diameter but each with a different mass.

“A big concern for satellites is drag — that is, forces due to atmospheric density that cause the satellite to stray from its orbit,” Sojka says. “If a satellite doesn’t stay on its prescribed path, it risks collisions with other space objects or falling toward Earth hastening its demise as it burns up in the atmosphere.”

Using telescopes and GPS, USU students will track the shiny balls — one made of aluminum, the other two of stainless steel — as they as make their way across the sky.

“Each of the spheres will reflect the same amount of light but, because of their varied densities, will experience the upper atmosphere differently,” Sojka says.

Designed and built by Planetary Systems Corporation of Maryland, the satellites will travel into space in a spring-loaded canister that will eject the spheres into orbit.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for our students to explore emerging technology in orbital analysis,” Sojka says. “The military, private companies and space agencies such as NASA and the European Space Agency are keenly interested in keeping satellite fleets going and avoiding problems with space weather.”

Solar flares, varying in intensity and frequency as the Sun moves through cycles, disrupt satellites upon which citizens of the Earth increasingly depend for communications and other commercial and military uses.

“So many of our daily activities — especially cell phone and pager use, Internet and TV viewing — depend on satellites,” Sojka says. “This project provides our students an opportunity to contribute to solutions for a global challenge, while learning about a lot of really interesting science.”

USU’s GAS Team hosts its opening social Wednesday, Sept. 4, at 5:30 p.m. in the Science Engineering Research Building, Room 244. All students interested in space research are welcome to attend. The team is currently involved in a number of endeavors, including the POPACS project.

Related links:

Contact: Jan Sojka, 435-797-2849,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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