Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

STARSHINE comes home
Posted: Feb. 16, 2000

The STARSHINE satellite before launch. Photo: NASA
The Student-Tracked Atmospheric Research Satellite for Heuristic International Networking Equipment (STARSHINE) will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere in a fiery blaze of glory after nine months in orbit on approximately Feb. 18 or 19.

STARSHINE is falling slowly in altitude with each orbit as it encounters the fringe of the Earth's atmosphere, with its rate of fall increasing as it meets increasing resistance. Eventually, the atmospheric resistance or drag will become too much and STARSHINE will reenter the atmosphere, burning up like a slow bright meteor or fireball.

STARSHINE principal investigator, Professor Gilbert Moore from Utah State University, said about the satellite's re-entry, "due to an incredible stroke of luck, this little STARSHINE satellite is re-entering the Earth's atmosphere just at the right time. The Sun is rapidly nearing the peak of its eleven-year sunspot cycle, and is going through a period of significant disturbance right now. As the ball-shaped STARSHINE satellite descends toward its final flaming burnout, high above the Earth, its position is being tracked by U.S. Space Command radars. The tracking information is being used to compute when and where the satellite will flame out, and a worldwide network of observers will try to photograph the fireball."

At this time, the exact location and date of STARSHINE's re-entry is uncertain due to variations in the density of the upper atmosphere, usually in response to solar disturbances. A solar flare, for example, can cause the density to increase greatly, making STARSHINE's orbit decay more quickly than expected and bringing forward the time of reentry. On the final projected day, re-entry estimates will be accurate down to a few minutes and the location down to a few hundred miles.

The Student-Tracked Atmospheric Research Satellite for Heuristic International Networking Experiment (STARSHINE) satellite leaves the cargo bay of shuttle Discovery on STS-96. Photo: NASA
STARSHINE, deployed in June 1999 from the Space Shuttle, is an 86.6-pound hollow aluminum sphere that is 19 inches in diameter. It is covered with 878 polished aluminum mirrors that are one inch in diameter. The mirrors were machined by Utah high school technology students and shipped to schools in Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, the Czech Republic, England, Finland, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Spain, Turkey, the United States, and Zimbabwe for polishing.

Over twenty-five thousand students scattered across the United States and around the world were involved in polishing the nearly 900 aluminum mirrors that completely cover the beach ball-sized satellite's outer surface.

Asked what the students involved learned from the project, Moore said, "They learned that sunlight reflecting from something as tiny as the one-inch-diameter mirrors they polished can be seen by them in the evening sky at distances up to a thousand miles. Students of all ages can work in international teams on a common scientific goal. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to contribute to a worthwhile space experiment." Additionally, he said, "substantial numbers of the more advanced students have learned that increases in solar activity make the Earth's upper atmosphere swell up and get in the way of satellites in low Earth orbit. This makes the satellites descend to lower altitudes more rapidly than do decreases in solar activity."

The STARSHINE project is in preparation for STARSHINE-2.

  In canister
STARSHINE in deployment canister before launch. Photo: NASA

"We're designing STARSHINE-2 to be larger than STARSHINE-1, so it will be able to carry a lot more student mirrors. The project has been so popular with school children and their teachers that we anticipate a big increase in applications the second time around. The satellite will be carried on Goddard Space Flight Center's (Greenbelt, Md.) new Shuttle Hitchhiker Experiment Launch System platform, since it will not fit inside a standard Hitchhiker/Get Away Special canister," said Moore. Just as soon as a flight assignment is received from NASA for STARSHINE-2, mirror-polishing kits will be mailed to applying schools.

The launch of Starshine was managed by the Shuttle Small Payloads Project Office at Goddard.

Video vault
The STARSHINE satellite is ejected from space shuttle Discovery last June. Astronaut narrates.
  PLAY (225k, 31sec QuickTime file)
Download QuickTime 4 software to view this file.

Explore the Net
STARSHINE - Project Web site with information on the mission.

Reentry - Alan Pickup's STARSHINE reentry prediction page.

Sign up for Astronomy Now's NewsAlert service and have the latest news in astronomy and space e-mailed directly to your desktop (free of charge).

Your e-mail address: