updated 9/7/2010 7:02:27 PM ET 2010-09-07T23:02:27

When a NASA satellite met its doom in a fiery blaze in Earth's atmosphere after a seven-year mission, a bunch of college students were at the controls.

But these students didn't hack into NASA to take the satellite for a destructive joyride they were actually on the job.

The students had been helping NASA pilot the Earth-watching ICESat satellite for years, so it was natural for them to be there at the end when the space agency decommissioned the craft Aug. 30.

The undergraduates are part of a group at the University of Colorado-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics that teams about 20 undergraduates with several professional engineers and programmers to help control five NASA satellites.

Make that four, now, since ICESat is out of the picture.

"Although we are sad to see such a successful science mission come to an end, we are proud of our students' role in bringing the spacecraft safely out of orbit," said LASP missions operations and data systems director Bill Possel in a statement.

Hands-on space experience
LASP is one of a handful of institutes in the world that provide undergraduates the training and certification needed to operate NASA spacecraft. It's the only university to have controlled five unique satellites, Possel said. One of these is the Kepler space observatory, a $600 million mission to search for alien worlds orbiting distant stars.

The students go through an intensive 10-week summer training program, followed by practical and written tests. If they pass everything, LASP certifies them as satellite controllers.

The students then work 20 hours per week, including some nights and holidays, for at least three years. They upload commands to satellites and help NASA ground stations track them.

It's real-world experience the students would be hard-pressed to get in any science or engineering course.

"It's amazing for an undergraduate like me to get hands-on experience controlling multimillion-dollar NASA satellites," said aerospace engineering sciences junior Katelynn Finn, who has been a LASP satellite mission controller for more than a year. "The experience I'm getting at LASP is already preparing me for a career in aerospace once I get out of college."

And NASA benefits from the arrangement, too, Possel said. The program helps train the next generation of space scientists, and student operators come cheaper than full-time professionals.

Bringing ICESat down
ICESat spent seven years studying Earth's polar regions. The mission was an unqualified success, NASA officials have said. The satellite's mission led to scientific advances in measuring changes in the mass of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, polar sea ice thickness, vegetation-canopy heights and the heights of clouds and aerosols.

ICESat's scientific mission ended in February when its primary instrument, a laser altimeter, failed. NASA officials decided to bring the 2,000-lb (907-kg) satellite down, burning it up in Earth's atmosphere so it wouldn't pose a hazard to other orbiting craft.

The decision offered the Colorado students a rare opportunity to help decommission a spacecraft. The last time a NASA satellite burned up during re-entry on purpose was January 2002, when the agency safely brought down its Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer.

Mission flight controllers fired ICESat's propulsion system thrusters from June 23 to July 14, reducing the lowest point of the spacecraft's orbit to 125 miles (200 km) above Earth's surface.

The LASP team uploaded commands for the satellite to burn off its remaining fuel and switch off its transmitter, then ran calculations to determine and predict ICESat's location. Over time, ICESat spiraled lower and lower.

On Aug. 30, the satellite re-entered Earth's atmosphere and largely burned up, with pieces of debris falling harmlessly into the Barents Sea north of Norway and Russia, Possel said.

"The ICESat team has done a marvelous job to ensure that the spacecraft is removed as a hazard to other spacecraft and as a potential source of future orbital debris," said Nicholas Johnson, chief scientist for orbital debris at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

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