Russian Rocket Crash Destroys Montana’s First Satellite

Launching rockets into space has become so common and frequent that we tend to forget that space flight is an inherently risky business. As the old adage about general aviation goes, it’s safe– but extremely unforgiving. When things go wrong, they tend to go wrong spectacularly, and the result can be years and years of work lost, as students at Montana State University learned this week when the Russian rocket carrying Montana’s first satellite crashed in Kazakhstan:

At 100 feet tall and 15 feet across, the Dnepr missile was to carry 18 satellites into orbit. Nearly 200 students, faculty, and members of the public gathered at the Engineering and Physical Sciences building on the campus of Montana State University to cheer the launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome as it was relayed by live video.

However, 13 minutes after the launch, a much-anticipated signal from the rocket had not been received. About two hours later, a space news Website posted a story that the rocket had crashed….

The rocket carried MEROPE, Montana EaRth Orbiting Pico-Explorer, which was the culmination of five years of work and waiting by more than 100 MSU students….

MEROPE was a specific satellite design known as a CubeSat. CubeSats are shaped like a cube 10 centimeters (4 inches) on a side and weigh 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds). They were envisioned as student satellites that could be designed, built, tested and launched in the time it takes a student to earn a four-year undergraduate degree.

Undergraduates from physics, electrical engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering, art, business, even geology and microbiology, worked on the project through MSU’s Space Science and Engineering Lab. …

Over its four-month lifetime, MEROPE was to take measurements of the Van Allen Radiation Belt, a donut shaped band of super-charged particles that can kill astronauts and destroy satellites. The belt’s radiation levels and its shape are constantly changing. MEROPE’s monitoring was to contribute to the understanding of "space weather," Larsen said.

As Bill Hiscock, head of MSU’s physics department, points out, 95% of the work done by the students took place simply in getting the satellite to the launch pad. So, although the satellite was lost, the educational value of the project for tomorrow’s engineers and scientists was not.

Russia’s Federal Space Agency says a first stage engine shutdown caused the crash.