June 18, 1999 Four Colorado institutions including the University of Colorado at Boulder have teamed up on the construction, launch and control of a NASA satellite designed to observe Earth's oceans and act as an "El Nino watcher."
Known as the Quick Scatterometer, or QuikScat, the satellite will provide daily, detailed snapshots of the winds swirling above the world's oceans to improve weather forecasting, according to NASA officials.
The QuikScat satellite is slated for launch June 19 from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base at 7:15 p.m. MDT. The mission should help scientists determine the location, strength and structure of severe marine storms, including Atlantic hurricanes, Asian typhoons and mid-latitude cyclones worldwide, according to NASA officials.
The one-ton satellite was built by the Ball Aerospace Systems Division of Boulder. The Titan II launch vehicle was built by Lockheed-Martin of Denver, and the satellite will be controlled by students and faculty at CU's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.
In addition, the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research, located in the CU-Boulder engineering college, will be involved in orbit determination of the spacecraft using the Global Positioning Satellites. Boulder's National Center for Atmospheric Research will help in the science analysis and calibration of QuikScat, said Randal Davis, head of mission control at CU-Boulder's LASP.
The mission, put together in a record 12 months, could only have been accomplished by all parties working closely together, said Davis. "We have a crew of 15 students working on QuikScat, by far the most complicated spacecraft ever operated by a university," said Davis. "Ball approached us because we fit their needs as an operational group of professionals and students."
LASP faculty and students are currently controlling NASA's Student Nitric Oxide Explorer satellite, or SNOE, designed and built primarily by CU-Boulder students and launched in February 1998.
CU-Boulder is one of only a handful of universities in the nation capable of the satellite control. In addition to controlling the SNOE spacecraft, LASP controlled two British high-technology satellites from 1986 to 1998.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a partner in the mission, will use the data for improved storm warnings and weather forecasting by more accurately determining the paths of tropical storms and hurricanes.
Scatterometers send high-frequency microwave pulses to the ocean surface and measure the echoed pulse back to the satellite. Ripples sensed by the instruments allow scientists to compute wind speed and direction. The satellite will circle the Earth every 101 minutes at an altitude of 500 miles, beaming down data to NASA ground stations 15 times a day.
"Since Ball Aerospace and CU-Boulder use the same software that we developed here at the university, CU was well positioned," said Davis. "We felt it was important science, and are pleased to be a participant."
CU-Boulder and Ball teamed up in 1982 on the Student Mesosphere Explorer satellite project. Ball Aerospace built the spacecraft, which was controlled by CU-Boulder students and faculty from 1981 to 1989. SME was the first NASA satellite ever entirely controlled and operated by a university.
The 450-pound radar instrument aboard QuikScat, called SeaWinds, was built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena as part of the space agency's Earth Sciences Enterprise, a long-term research and technology program to examine Earth's land, oceans, atmosphere and life.
Since wind plays a major role in Earth's weather by affecting turbulent exchanges of heat moisture and greenhouse gases between the Earth's atmosphere and ocean, the Scatterometer should provide valuable data, said NASA officials. Twenty or more students from CU-Boulder, both graduates and undergraduates, are expected to participate in QuikScat mission operations.
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