Students and faculty prepare an out-of-this-world project for
The message was, “You’re on the manifest and you
That was the word from officials from the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration when they visited campus in May to review
the design of AgCam, an agricultural camera that will be mounted
in the International Space Station to snap satellite images of
land in the Upper Midwest.
Students and faculty in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering,
computer science, space studies, and business administration are
working with the Upper Midwest Aerospace Consortium (UMAC), headquartered
at UND, and NASA to design, construct, and test the camera and
its control systems.
Built to provide information for farmers, ranchers, foresters,
and educators, AgCam will repeatedly throughout the growing season
take photos of the Upper Midwest in two spectral bands, send the
images back to Earth, and allow users and researchers to evaluate
crop health, rangeland productivity, impact of wildfires and floods,
forest sustainability, and other natural resources.
AgCam is booked for launch in July 2004, depending on shuttle
schedules. Despite the Columbia space shuttle disaster and the
fact that space flight has not yet resumed, NASA has told the
University to keep the camera on schedule and be ready for launch,
but to prepare for delays. Expected to cost about $3 million,
AgCam has been sponsored by the NASA Office of Education and been
funded by NASA’s Earth Science Enterprise and a variety
of other agencies.
It’s a case of using applied research to perform basic
research, say UND professors. In addition to being used by farmers,
ranchers, foresters, natural resource managers, K-12 teachers,
tribal governments, and others, the information transmitted by
AgCam will be used to explore Earth system science and policy.
All the entities will work with UMAC, a network of researchers
at eight universities in five states. It is directed by UND’s
George A. Seielstad, who also is associate dean of the John D.
Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. UMAC’s mission is
to make the benefits of scientific research accessible to end
The camera, which will be mounted in the Window Observational
Research Facility within the space station, will have a high spatial
resolution, revisit a site several times a week while in orbit,
and provide images 24 to 48 hours after they are acquired. Each
picture will cover a swath of about 82 by 650 kilometers.
Farmers, ranchers, and natural resource managers will have the
ability to request specific remote sensing data during the growing
season. UND will process requests for images and send them to
the Marshall Space Flight Center. It will relay the request via
satellite to the International Space Station flight computer,
which will forward the command to AgCam. Within 48 hours, the
camera will take the picture and relay it to UND for post-processing
UND is probably the first university to be assigned space in
the Window Observational Research Facility (WORF) on the International
Space Station, Seielstad said. “The fact that we’re
getting into orbit and working with Mission Control is truly incredible.
There are many other nations involved, and they’ve approved
the project. People from all over the world have examined our
The work, from plan and design to building and implementation,
is being done by faculty, UND graduate and undergraduate students,
as well as students from all over the country who will come to
UND as participants in the National Science Foundation Research
Experience for Undergraduates program.
Some 25 of them have been involved so far in the development
of the AgCam flight hardware and its operations center, which
began in the spring of 2001. The multidisciplinary nature of the
project is one of its most valuable aspects, said Richard Schultz,
associate professor of electrical engineering. “The synergy
between the disciplines is where the real learning takes place.”
The scope of the project is immense: Members of the project must
meet NASA regulations, plan and design the project, submit the
parameters to NASA, then begin building the camera and its components,
and, finally, figure out how to relay the acquired data to Earth
and transmit it to users. They need to take everything into account:
lens quality, the aerosol load of the air, vibration, ground reflectance,
infrared signals, calibrations, and more. There is no room for
error. It has to work, and testing is a priority.
There is, of course, risk involved in the project. There’s
the uncertainty of when AgCam will launch, and despite rigorous
testing, the camera or its components could fail in orbit.
“Payload development is inherently a risky business,”
says Schultz. “People sometimes work for years and never
get anything into space.”
But along with the uncertainty, he adds, is a high level of excitement:
“This type of project makes UND’s programs unique.
We have been able to attract great students to work on AgCam.”