MOREHEAD A second giant antenna dish soon will show up on the hillside behind Morehead State University — a gift from NASA that MSU space science students will use in their studies and research.
It’s a 12-meter tracking antenna used for monitoring low-orbiting satellites.
The antenna will be used for satellite tracking and mission support and also for training space systems engineering students, astrophysics students and astronomy students for experience in space missions operations, according to Ben Malphrus, executive director of the MSU Space Science Center.
What makes the acquisition a big deal is that the new antenna in some ways replaces the existing 21-meter dish, which will remain but will be dedicated to deep space tracking, Malphrus said.
“It’s half the size of the big dish, which has been sort of a victim of its own success. We got funding from NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems to upgrade (the big antenna) to an affiliate node on the NASA Deep Space Network,” he said.
The Deep Space Network is NASA’s program for keeping track of interplanetary space missions. Its primary antennae are at three locations spaced equidistantly around the world so scientists can monitor spacecraft transmissions continuously.
MSU’s big antenna will be the first one not owned by NASA, Malphrus said.
Although students will get some experience with the big antenna in deep-space operations, they will no longer be able to use it for the full range of space mission training, he said.
That is where the new antenna comes in. When NASA and Morehead State were making the DSN deal, a NASA colleague offered the smaller antenna to the university, Malphrus said. The antenna is top-shelf technology but was no longer needed by the space agency, and because it had been at the DSN facility in California’s bone-dry Mojave Desert, it remains in prime condition.
A Morehead State team moved the antenna and it will take about two years to get it installed along with the complex electronics for spacecraft tracking. Students will do much of that work and in the process make progress on their own research. “Students have been involved in building everything we’ve ever built here. It’s an extraordinary experience — and it’s cost-effective labor,” Malphrus said.
The DSN affiliation is a chance for MSU to enhance its research opportunities and that will lead to new growth in the space science program, Malphrus said. The DNS contract allowed the addition of five more staff members, he said.
The new dish will be used to monitor Morehead State’s own satellites and also some commercial satellites for which MSU has contracts. That generates revenue which is plowed back into the space science program, “and it’s a great way to train students in real-life space operations,” he said.
NASA gave MSU the antenna. The expenses for moving it, setting it up and equipping it with the sensitive electronics necessary for pulling in signals from space came from a state appropriation and grants, including one from the Appalachian Regional Commission.