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SNOE: Not your ordinary student project

by Robert Henson
UCAR Communications

The academic year ended with an uncommonly large payoff for a group of University of Colorado (CU) students: a working satellite payload designed and built in collaboration with NCAR, university, and industry scientists, engineers, and machinists. The Student Nitric Oxide Experiment (SNOE, pronounced "snowy") involved more than a year of collaboration among the student engineers, machinists in NCAR's Design and Fabrication Services (DFS), NCAR High Altitude Observatory solar physicist Thomas Woods, engineers at Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. and at CU's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), and a computer drafting class at Arapahoe High School in Littleton, Colorado. The resulting instrument is scheduled for launch next spring aboard a Pegasus rocket by Orbital Sciences Corporation.

SNOE's task in space will be to study how nitric oxide in the region 60 to 400 kilometers above ground responds to variations in incoming solar energy. The thermosphere and ionosphere, which coexist at these heights, are vulnerable to soft X-rays and energetic electrons. Nitric oxide at these altitudes is exquisitely sensitive to solar input, and plays a key role in energy transfers there, especially during aurora-producing solar storms.

Support for the SNOE project came from NASA's Student Explorer Demonstration Initiative, which has funded one or two such efforts in each of the past several years. The goal is to prove that spacecraft can be built and deployed through student help at a much lower cost than usual, with the added benefit of real-world experience for the students. The entire SNOE mission, except for the launch vehicle and launch services, should cost around $4 million.

The DFS machine shop's role was to help the students translate their ideas, as expressed in mechanical drawings, into a finely tuned, working piece of equipment. "The whole concept was for the students to do everything right up to running the machine," says DFS engineer Jack Fox. The collaboration between the students and NCAR machinists "was a very hands-on, apprentice-type relationship. For most of the students it was their first chance to design something," says Michael McGrath of LASP, who directed the structural and thermal design process.

NCAR machinist James Holt was impressed at the speed with which the students adapted their classroom point of view to the way such work is actually done in industry. As he guided the students into real-world design, Holt introduced them to computer-aided machining, a largely automated system for building parts to strict tolerances at record speed. "We called it 'parts-while-you-wait.' The students couldn't believe it. They'd turn the parts over and over in their hands." Later, Holt went to LASP and helped the SNOE crew set up their own computer-aided machining system, supported by a year's loan of software from the commercial firm that supplies NCAR with machining software.

In the next year, the completed instrument will be tested at LASP and Ball to make sure it will hold up under 14 times the force of gravity with 90 kilograms of weight attached. Stephen Steg, a senior in mechanical engineering, sensed the importance of the testing. "What I really got out of this was seeing how a prototype is made, rather than a mass-produced thing. Before I started here, I wasn't that interested in aerospace, but this has definitely sparked an interest. It's really challenging." When it comes to spacecraft, adds Steg, "You don't have a chance to do things over."

For more information, contact McGrath (303-492-8482 or mcgrath@pisces.colorado.edu).

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Edited by Carol Rasmussen, carolr@ucar.edu
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Last revised: Tue Apr 4 09:33:26 MDT 2000