Raucous applause was subdued by quiet shock yesterday afternoon after a rocket carrying small satellites designed by Cal Poly aerospace engineers and partnering universities successfully cleared the launch pad but failed to reach orbit.
What would have been the first deployment of small (pico) satellites designed by Cal Poly aerospace engineers ended in failure when the Russian-made rocket, which also included a payload of several satellites designed by universities all over the world, stopped transmitting information several minutes into the launch.
Aerospace engineers suspect that booster malfunction midway through the launch was the cause of the failure.
“We’re truly sad because this (satellite) was the product of the hard work of over 100,000 students,” said Launch Coordinator and Cal Poly aerospace graduate student, Roland Coelho.
The Russian-designed DNEPR-1 LV rocket was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 12:43 p.m. and was carrying a payload of small, cube-shaped picosatellites as part of the CubeSat Project directed in large part by the Cal Poly aerospace department.
The CubeSat Project, developed by Cal Poly and Stanford University’s Space Systems Development Lab as a means for high school and college students to gain knowledge and experience necessary to succeed in the aerospace industry, includes over 80 U.S. and international university participants.
According to Cubesat.org, the project also “benefits private firms and government by providing a low-cost way of flying payloads into space.”
The July 26 mission, designated DNEPR Launch 1, was transporting a CubeSat payload including two Cal Poly picosatellites, CP-1 and CP-2, as well as 14 others from various universities that contained scientific, private and government equipment.
Once the rocket was in orbit, the satellites would be launched from Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployers (P-Pods) designed and built at Cal Poly. Prior to the July 26 mission, the P-Pods had been successfully used to deploy CubeSats in 2003.
Gathered in the Advanced Technologies Laboratory in Building 7 at noon, aerospace engineers, professors, alumni, fans and the curious watched live feed and listened in on a teleconference with students present at the Kazakhstan launch site.
Aerospace graduate students Armen Toorian and Lori Brooks, who were responsible for attaching the deployers and CubeSats to the rocket, provided live commentary as the rocket took off from the subterranean launch pad.
At about 920 seconds into the flight and still no contact with the rocket, Toorian said, “We’re hoping for the best, and anxiously waiting. At this point, deployment should be complete.”
However, after the allotted time had passed for the rocket to reach orbit, and no contact from the satellites, it had been determined that the rocket never made it into orbit.
Though dismayed, the aerospace department’s confidence was not shaken, as plans for further launches were already underway.
“It’s unfortunate what has happened,” said aerospace department chairman Jordi Puig-Suari. “But we’re not going to stop deploying (satellites). It was a great test, and a great learning opportunity.”
A similar mission designated DEPNR Launch 2 carrying a payload of Cal Poly-designed CompSats is scheduled for launch sometime in September, and another mission designated Falcon-1 Launch 1 sometime next year, said the aerospace department.