On August 30th, after seven years gathering data on ice sheets and sea ice dynamics, a NASA satellite met its fiery end in the Earth’s atmosphere before plunging into the sea. And it was University of Colorado at Boulder undergraduates who plotted the satellite’s fatal course.
Happily this wasn’t the result of a Hacking 101 class gone awry, or a particularly sophisticated prank. The students’ destructive mission had NASA’s full endorsement.
NASA decommissioned the Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite, or ICESat in July, before turning the show over to the students, who worked with experts from the university’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.
Students and faculty at the Laboratory control four other satellites for NASA and have also operated ICESat during its life, allowing the satellite to measure polar sea ice thickness, the mass of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and the heights of vegetation canopies and clouds. Even if the students were old pros at satellite steering, the chance to crash these multimillion dollar craft is rare–the last NASA satellite reentered the Earth’s atmosphere in 2002 and NASA did the job themselves.
After seven-day work weeks computing the satellite’s location and predictions for NASA tracking stations, the students transmitted the satellite’s final course and told it burn all remaining fuel. As Popular Science reports, its charred remains safely splashed down in the Barents Sea north of Norway and Russia on Monday. Please tell me someone in that control room made an explosion noise.
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Image: Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado