A spacecraft built and operated by Saint Louis University students was launched into orbit Tuesday night.
COPPER (SLU-01) -- a one-kilogram, ten-centimeter cube designed to test how infrared cameras fare in space -- is the product of three years of design and construction by more than 50 engineering, aviation and technology students.
And they're not done yet.
Just after watching COPPER launched into space at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia, the SLU students piled back into several cars to drive back to St. Louis and design their next space-bound project, Argus, which will test the effects of radiation on small electronics.
"This is our first step into orbit but not our last," says Michael Swartwout, a professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at SLU. "This is the first of what we expect to be a long run of spacecraft we get launched with NASA."
SLU is the only St. Louis-area university currently taking advantage of a NASA program that offers a spot in a loaf-of-bread-size dispenser onboard a space shuttle for pre-approved, student-made experimental spacecraft small enough to fit.
In other words: If SLU builds it, NASA will launch it.
See also: [PHOTOS] St. Louis As Seen From Space
"It really does open it up for dozens of schools to get to do space flight," Swartwout says. "Given all of the unexpected ways that devices and components interact in space, NASA and the space industry are rationally hesitant to try new things. We're able to fly something and test it out and have it better understood -- which makes it more appealing for NASA."
During this trip SLU students will experiment with an infrared camera in space, testing its use in navigation, and aiming it at Earth for a new method of environmental monitoring.
Infrared cameras can see in both the total darkness of an eclipse and in the full light of the sun. SLU students hypothesize they'll see objects within 150 meters with the camera, which would help them navigate their third space-bound project, Rascal.
If COPPER's cameras work, it could mean SLU students are developing a technology that would make maneuvering small spacecraft much less expensive.
"We think there are simple ways for a spacecraft of this size to [navigate], and luckily no one has tried this before, so we're the first to do it," Swartwout says. "If it works, I think NASA will be very interested. If it doesn't work, they didn't invest much money in it. It's a no-risk proposition for us."
The camera could help scientists learn about Earth as well as space. The infrared camera could monitor ocean currents, heat islands around cities and other natural phenomena.
"We're in the unknown," Swartwout says. "What else are we going to see with this?" Students are already working on a proposal for a fourth spacecraft.
COPPER is one of 29 satellites -- the largest number of spacecraft ever released from a single rocket -- launched Tuesday as part of the Enabler mission.
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