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US undergrads crash NASA satellite into Arctic

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Undergraduate students in America managed to get control of the manoeuvring thrusters of an orbiting 2000-lb NASA satellite at the weekend, sending it plummeting into the Earth's atmosphere to rain burning fragments across the chilly seas north of Norway and Russia.

"They ran calculations to determine where the spacecraft was located," said Darrin Osborne, flight director for the now-destroyed Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite, or ICESat. "The students did this seven days a week."

Rather than a posse of delinquent space hacker youths pranging satellites for lolz, however, the undergraduates in question were actually supposed to be in charge of the ICESat. They had been given a go on the controls as part of the ongoing operations of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado. LASP operates various science satellites for NASA from its space command centre on campus in Boulder, Colorado.

Nor was the ICESat's fiery dive into the Arctic a cockup by enthusiastic but inexperienced youngsters, perhaps rashly left at the controls while their full-time supervisors nipped out for a crafty cig. The ICESat had been returning data from space successfully for seven years, well outlasting its targeted design life, before its primary sensor - a laser device intended for measuring ice thickness, forest cover and suchlike on the Earth below - failed last year.

Having got all that could be got from the now largely purposeless spacecraft in terms of engineering tests etc, NASA decided to decommission the ICESat and use its remaining manoeuvring fuel to send it down into the atmosphere.

NASA calculations indicated that no more than 200lb of the ICESat's 2,000lb mass would survive to reach the surface. The de-orbit burn carried out by the Colorado undergrads was apparently perfectly executed:

The satellite successfully re-entered Earth's atmosphere Aug. 30 and largely burned up, with pieces of debris falling into the Barents Sea - which is part of the Arctic Ocean north of Norway and Russia.

"Although we are sad to see such a successful science mission come to an end, we are proud of our students' role in bringing the spacecraft safely out of orbit," said LASP honcho Bill Possel.

Theoretically any Colorado undergrad can apply for a spot at the LASP space command centre, though almost all of the current crop are majoring in engineering, space science or computer science.

"Student operators provide a lower cost to NASA, and CU students at LASP receive hands-on training and experience that helps position them for a future in space-related careers," says Possel.

"It's amazing for an undergraduate like me to get hands-on experience controlling multimillion-dollar NASA satellites," enthuses third-year aerospace engineering sciences student Katelynn Finn.

There's more on the LASP here. ®

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