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SNOE: Not Your Ordinary Student Project

Earlier this spring, the students of SNOE proudly unveiled the satellite's support structure. Left to right: David Smith, Rebecca Hage, Heather Reed, Andrew Hunt (Front Range Community College), Lance Lininger, Steve Steg, and Adrian Sikorski (Colorado School of Mines). (All photos by Carlye Calvin.)
This academic year has ended with an uncommonly large payoff for a group of University of Colorado students: a working satellite payload designed and built in collaboration with NCAR's Design and Fabrication Services (DFS).

There are plenty of slapdash student projects done in a few caffeine-powered evenings, but this wasn't one of them. The Student Nitric Oxide Experiment (SNOE, pronounced "snowy") involved more than a year of collaboration between the student engineers and NCAR machinists, along with High Altitude Obervatory solar physicist Tom Woods, engineers at Ball Aerospace and the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), and a computer drafting class at Littleton's Arapahoe High School. The resulting instrument is scheduled for launch in the spring of 1997 aboard a Pegasus rocket by Orbital Sciences Corporation.

Powered by 12 solar panels, the student-built SNOE satellite spans about a meter and weighs about 100 kilograms.
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 it plays a key role in the superheated energy transfers that take place there, especially during aurora-producing solar storms.

Support for the SNOE project came from NASA's Student Explorer Demonstration Initiative. In each of the past several years, the NASA initiative has chosen to fund one or two efforts like SNOE from among dozens of applicants. 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 end up costing around $4 million--peanuts for a spacecraft instrument package.

The 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 Jack Fox of DFS. "That's where we were asked to lend our guidance in how to design the parts." Also involved was DFS manager Paul Johnson.

From day one of their work together, the students and machinists got along famously. "It was a very hands-on, apprentice-type relationship. For most of the students it was their first chance to design something," says Mike McGrath of LASP, who directed the structural and thermal design process.

"It was a very nice experience," says NCAR machinist Jim Holt. "I was impressed at the students' level of common sense and competence. They adapted to things that take a machinist years to learn through experience." At first, there was an inevitable learning curve to be overcome: "The students were dimensioning things the way they learned in school, which isn't always the way it's done in industry." For example, the angle of a support rod might be specified in relation to an imaginary point in space, which is fine on a blueprint but harder to deal with in actual construction.

Three of the pros that guided the SNOE students were Jim Holt and Paul Johnson (Design and Fabrication Services) and Mike McGrath (CU's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics).
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.

Students, machinists, engineers, and scientists met at LASP a few weeks ago to christen the completed instrument. In the next year, it will be run through a series of tests at LASP and Ball to make sure it will hold up under 14 times the force of gravity with about 90 kilograms of weight attached.

Steve 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 Steve, "You don't have a chance to do things over." •BH

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Prepared by Jacque Marshall, jacque@ucar.edu, 303-497-8616