Student-led HRRE Team Shoots for the Stars By Ken Keatley Welcome to the real world. That was the unspoken message from the eight-member Universities Space Research Association review panel that spent the better part of last Wednesday politely grilling an interdisciplinary team of students, faculty and research scientists from Hopkins, Morgan State University and the Applied Physics Laboratory. The mood was tense in the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy classroom, since the stakes were literally sky-high: if their design for a $4 million satellite is one of the two chosen from a field of six entrants, the Hopkins team--with the sponsorship of the Maryland Space Grant Consortium--will go on to build the spacecraft that in 1997 will search for the mysterious "dark matter" that may make up most of the universe. "They're tough," said Mark Chang, a poised sophomore majoring in electrical engineering, moments after completing the presentation for his design group, Command and Data Handling. "But it's not something that we didn't anticipate. We were prepared to show them that there are significant risks to this project, given the severe monetary constraints." Under the direction of principal investigator Richard C. Henry and project scientist Marsha Allen, both Hopkins astrophysicists, about 60 engineering and physics students and 30 scientists have worked on an integrated design for the satellite, which has a minuscule budget compared to other similar space mission projects. Their intense, four-month effort began Oct. 1, after their conceptual design was among six selected out of 66 proposals that had been entered in the Student Explorer Demonstration Initiative, a NASA-funded program. (Other finalists are groups from the University of Michigan, University of New Hampshire, Boston University and two from the University of Colorado). Twelve sub-groups--including Mission Operations, Radio Frequency Communication and Budget--were assembled to design all aspects of the satellite, which is called the Hydrogen Recombination Radiation Experiment. And while the faculty and research scientists guided the effort, the majority of the design work was orchestrated and completed by students. "The students are terrific," said Dr. Henry. "If we win, it will be because of the quality of the student presentations you will see." Almost all of Wednesday's presentations before representatives of the USRA, which is managing the STEDI program for NASA, were made by students. And it was often students who calmly responded to the pointed questions--on parts procurement, details of a design component, etc.--from the panel. Jeff Booth, a junior majoring in physics and the lead presenter for the Science Data Processing group, said that compared to similar presentations he's seen for other projects, the Hopkins/Morgan/APL effort was the best. He should know_as a high school student in Norfolk, Va., he helped design a satellite that flew on a space shuttle mission in September. He's also worked in mission control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "This is the most hands-on experience I've had," Booth said. "I hope we get it--I could use a summer job." If the team is selected, it will construct a 3-foot-long, 30-inch-wide satellite that will be deployed in early 1997 and operated for one year. Its mission is a bold one: to detect ultraviolet light in an attempt to measure the radiation from hydrogen gas that scientists believe occupies the vast space between galaxies. If it succeeds, it will be a scientific landmark supporting the Big Bang concept that "will approach Nobel Prize-winning caliber," Dr. Henry said. "It's a major challenge." While the Hopkins/Morgan/APL team is eager to have the opportunity to make history, participants agree that the experience of designing a satellite has been an unforgettable and invaluable educational experience. "I gained an aspect of engineering that you wouldn't get in the classroom," said Cathryne Tondreau, a junior majoring in electrical engineering. Braddock Gaskill, a colleague of hers in the Command and Data Handling group, which had the reponsibility of designing the onboard computer system, agreed. "It's been a real learning experience in more than just engineering," said Gaskill. "I've gotten to work with a lot of professional people in other groups and seen exactly how a big project works. It gives you a feeling that all the more abstract things learned in classes have a real application." Hopkins was the first stop on the USRA review panel's tour. Selection of the teams that will build the satellite should be made by mid-February, panel chairman James S. Martin said.
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