NASA Edge | Talking MMS (Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission)
CHRIS: Welcome to NASA EDGE, an inside and outside look at all things NASA. We’re here at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center talking to the MMS team or the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission. How are you guys doing?
CHRIS: Feeling pretty good?
CHRIS: I think we have a launch coming up here in a few months.
GROUP: Yeah, about six months.
CHRIS: What we’re going to do today; this is unlike any other NASA EDGE show we’ve done before. This will be a talk show format. We’re going to have fun with this today. So Craig, you’re the PI for the key instrument on the spacecraft. Tell us a little bit about it.
CRAIG: Well, I think you’re talking about FPI, Fast Plasma Investigation. We measure the distribution of electrons and ions in space in the reconnection region. The thing that sets it apart is it’s 100 times faster than plasma measurements have ever been made before. Which allows us to get very high spatial resolution as well as time resolution because the things we’re looking at are moving past the spacecraft very quickly. High time resolution gives us high spatial resolution. It’s been a huge effort. We’ve got a great team and so far, so good.
CHRIS: You have a great group right here. Brent is the deputy project manager. Craig mentioned this term, magnetic reconnection. What made you think about magnetic reconnection years ago when you were developing this mission?
BRENT: Magnetic reconnection is the physical process that happens throughout the universe. It happens in planet formation. It happens in fusion reactors and happens in the magnetosphere. It’s just a process that scientists don’t understand. It releases a tremendous amount of energy when it occurs. NASA decided a while ago that this was a number one priority to build a mission to understand this process.
CHRIS: When did you start this mission? What year was this?
BRENT: The mission was confirmed in 2009.
BRENT: Yes, so it’s been a while.
CHRIS: I was reading on NASA.gov that there was another NASA spacecraft that accidently recorded a magnetic reconnection. Is that true?
CRAIG: There have been several missions flown by NASA and other international organizations where we’ve gotten glimpses of what’s really going on with magnetic reconnection but this is the first mission which is fully dedicated in a systematic way to studying that phenomenon.
CHRIS: Noosha, four spacecraft; why not one?
NOOSHA: Well, we can’t meet our science requirements with just one spacecraft. We actually need all four to fly together in the tetrahedral formation to be able to do the science properly.
CHRIS: As a systems engineer on the project, what is your role on the mission?
NOOSHA: I’m actually the avionics system engineer. I actually started off as the hardware lead for the command and data handling. I moved up to become a systems engineer. Avionic systems engineer is responsible for most of the spacecraft electronics on the deck. That includes the command data handling subsystem, the power supply electronics, the engine valve drive as well as the navigator, which handles our GPS and our location.
CHRIS: Is it fair to say that Noosha is doing a pretty good job as systems engineer for the project?
BRENT: She’s okay.
NOOSHA: I will remember that, Romeo!
CHRIS: Kenny, you’re a mechanical engineer on the project?
CHRIS: Do you pretty much watch what Noosha’s doing; making sure she’s doing her job correctly? What’s your role?
KENNY: Actually, I am the mechanical lead. I actually started the project in 2005 when we were in the integrated design center. I was actually one of the ones that laid out the octagon shape that eventually came to be favored by the PI and the scientists, such as Craig.
CHRIS: Why did you choose an octagon shape?
KENNY: The key role or factor that lead to that shape was the number of instruments. The Fast Plasma Instrument has eight instruments that are 90° apart. That was a good function; an octagon, 8, goes into those 4 instruments well. Being 90° apart helped with the lay out. Each one wanted to have their own clear field of view.
CHRIS: I guess it’s fair to say you did really well in geometry back in high school and college?
KENNY: I don’t know if I can remember back then but I guess so. It wasn’t just me, I would say it was a team effort that had to go into getting that layout to be accepted.
CHRIS: You brought up a good point. Craig, I’m sorry you’re the only scientist here. You’re out numbered by engineers. The scientist and the engineer really have to work together closely in order to develop a plan for a mission. How is it important for you, as a mechanical engineer, to work with the scientists?
KENNY: It’s very important that the scientists and the engineers work closely together so we can understand the requirements. As we started off early on, the requirements weren’t all known. It’s a lot of interaction that has to go on multiple times of cycles to try to understand and get all the requirements in so that you can package the spacecraft or bus, in my world, that meets their requirements.
CHRIS: I understand, Chris, you’re also a mechanical engineer?
CHRIS: Mmm, hum. You work with Kenny?
CHRIS A: I do. I work for Kenny.
CHRIS: Was his answer correct?
CHRIS A: Mostly.
CHRIS A: No, no. Very correct.
CHRIS: Anything you want to add to that in terms of working with the scientists?
CHRIS A: My area of work on the project really doesn’t deal a lot with the scientists. By the time I came on; Kenny, I think that was 2000…
CHRIS A: 2010. The requirements were all pretty much well defined.
CHRIS: So at that point, if you didn’t agree with the octagon shape, you pretty much had to deal with it because it was already set in stone by the time you got there.
CHRIS A: Too little, too late.
CHRIS: Too little, too late. Good. Safety is really important for a lot of missions, isn’t it? I believe, Michelle, you’re the safety lead for the mission?
MICHELLE: Yes, I am the safety lead.
CHRIS: In terms of safety, is your role to make sure everything is going well with the spacecraft? What exactly is the safety officer?
MICHELLE: It’s a little bit of both. My main focus is definitely making sure we keep the people safe. What I want to make sure is anytime they’re running procedures or doing different operations that we’re making sure they’re within the limits of OSHA and within the NASA requirements as well. We do, also, keep an eye on the hardware as well and make sure that’s safe. We have some deployables. So making sure, basically, if we went ahead and deployed one of those items, we’re A: not going to hit a person or any other equipment or hardware on the spacecraft itself.
CHRIS: You’re the one that pretty much putting in Go-Pros in the clean room making sure everyone’s doing their job and you’re sitting at a monitor?
MICHELLE: It would be nice if it was that easy. More times than not, I am the GoPro in the clean room.
CHRIS: You are the GoPro?
CHRIS: Wow, a human GoPro. You’ll have to trademark that one. Have you caught anybody in the clean room eating? Maybe some pizza; having some lunch?
MICHELLE: No, I have not but that’s not usually what I have to worry about. Normally, contamination will worry about that.
CHRIS: You don’t have any dirt you can give me on the team? Any of these people here?
MICHELLE: Not really. Everybody’s pretty good. Everybody takes safety pretty seriously. We have a good team of people working on this mission.
CHRIS: I want to go back to four spacecraft; four identical spacecraft. Are they truly identical, Brent?
BRENT: They’re pretty identical. If you look at them to the naked eye, you couldn’t tell a difference but there are little things. These are very complicated spacecraft. If we find an issue with one, we might have to fix something in a different way than we fix others. There are tiny differences.
CHRIS: I understand, informally, have you name each spacecraft? I always wondered, with four identical spacecraft, you’ve got to have a name for each one.
ROBERTO: One, Two, Three, and Four.
CHRIS: That’s pretty good. So with four spacecraft, there is a lot of testing going on; probably the same test repeated four different times because you have four identical spacecraft. I understand Mr. Freeze is in the back. Rommel, we had you on a previous show. Great job, by the way.
ROMMEL: Yes, I was. I’m famous now, by the way. In the Philippines only though.
CHRIS: How did it go with after all four tests were done in the themal vac?
ROMMELL: Overall, good. I don’t miss NRL. I’m just kidding. NRL was lovely; six months over there.
CHRIS: What’s NRL?
ROMMELL: The Navy Research Lab down in D.C. Six months or more of testing, almost nonstop. It went well.
CHRIS: We talked about sometimes you were falling asleep during the tests because not much was going on.
ROMMELL: Well, yeah. You get tired.
CHRIS: You get tired. Okay.
ROMMELL: When people are not around, you take a doze every now and then but again, it went well.
CHRIS: Very good. Ruth, you’re the quality engineer on the mission. Tell us your feelings at this point in terms of MMS. Are you getting excited towards the launch?
RUTH: First of all, I am one of several quality engineers on the team. I am very excited. This has been a great team to work with, great communication, great competence, and we’re a team of compassion also; highs and lows in this project. It’s been great.
CHRIS: As a quality engineer, what’s your role?
RUTH: I assure the mission as far as like, I’m not involved with the scientists, but as soon as those requirements are flowed down through engineering and into manufacturing, integration, test, we assure that those processes and the products comply with the requirements. So, we’re all over the place.
CHRIS: It’s interesting. Craig, as a scientist, is it fair to say, are you working with the mission all the way through or are you there at the beginning to look at the requirements, get the instruments built and then you’re ready to get that data once the mission is underway?
CRAIG: The scientists are deeply involved from start to finish, particularly at the instrument level, which is where my function is. I have a team of engineers, which I work with here in Building 21. We interact everyday. The requirements need to be set, defined as early as possible and as clearly as possible but then there are always things that come up. Will this work? Is this good enough? Will this contaminate your measurements? Will this work or will that work? You have to interact with the engineers certainly at the instrument level on a daily basis to make those kind of clarifications.
CHRIS: This mission is very unique in that you’re going to be really going into the heart system of space. You’re going to be experiencing a lot of radiation on this mission. Your scientific instruments really have to be ready to go, and really, essentially can’t fail. What does it take to get that instrumentation ready for space?
CRAIG: Regarding the radiation environment in particular, there are certain things which are sensitive to radiation, for example, certain electronic parts. There is technology where these electronic parts can be hardened against radiation, so we buy those particular parts for flights on a mission like this. Also plastics, you have to worry about the degradation of plastics with the radiation. It really comes down to clear requirements and attention to detail in the implementation from start to finish.
CHRIS: Roberto, we have a power systems guy over here. Roberto, I understand there are some solar panels on the spacecraft?
CHRIS: And some batteries. How do you go about getting a mission like this ready for solar panels, batteries, and making sure that the instruments have enough power on board?
ROBERTO: We initially do what we call an area balance analysis which dictates based on the orbit how much solar ray we’re going to be needing and how much battery we’re going to be needing for the long shadows. In particular, the MMS mission was challenging. We’re going to be in a cliff for about 4 hours but we were also facing the wall in terms of how big the battery could be because there is a mass that we need to keep the whole spacecraft below that number. We had to go back and forth. We came up with different flight operational scenarios would dictate what instruments get turned on, which ones get turned off so we have enough battery power to come out of the umbra.
CHRIS: So, it’s not as easy as putting a bunch of Energizer bunnies inside the spacecraft?
ROBERTO: I wish it was.
CHRIS: We talked about four spacecraft. Do you need four? Brent, do you need four spacecraft to complete the mission? Could you get away with three or two?
BRENT: For four science, we need the full force spacecraft. Magnetic reconnection is a process that happens in three dimensions. You have to take measurements in four different parts of space. So, you really need the four spacecraft. We could do minimal science with three but we’re aiming for four.
CHRIS: I’m going to get a little bit heavy from my perspective on the science side. You’ve got to help me to understand. Is it fair to say that the energy that is being transferred from the sun to the magnetic field, it actually crosses the magnetic field of the earth and that energy gets transferred to our field? That’s what your measuring, that magnetic reconnection to see how much energy is being transferred to our field? Is that fair to say?
BRENT: Yeah. You could think of it as there’s energy stored in our magnetic field and energy is released during a magnetic reconnection when the sun’s plasma interacts with the earth’s magnetic field. There’s energy that is released from that magnetic field.
CHRIS: The only visible signs that there is really a connection between the sun and the earth is the auroras. On the backside, you’re looking at that reconnection as well?
CRAIG: That’s phase 2 of the mission, looking at reconnection and what we we call a magnetospheric tail. We can execute both phases simultaneously because when reconnection happens on the sunward side of the earth, it’s about 11 earth radii away or upstream from the earth. When it happens on the backside, in the magnetospheric tail, it’s at about 20 earth radii away. We actually have to execute propulsive maneuvers and change our orbits between phase 1 & phase 2.
CHRIS: Speaking of propulsion, how long is the mission suppose to last?
BRENT: It’s a two-year mission. We have a commissioning period of about 5 ½ months, and then we have a two-year science mission. The spacecraft will be up there for at least that long. We have fuel that if NASA chooses to we could extend the mission by probably about another couple of years.
CHRIS: Noosha, a lot of times I talk to high school students, college students. The term systems engineer, what exactly is a systems engineer and how is the schooling different than say a mechanical, or an aerospace, or an electrical?
NOOSHA: Well, systems engineering, it’s very different in different areas but for me specifically, I have many different types of roles. One of my roles is to make sure that the requirements are met technically properly. We also have to make sure we test the observatories properly. That was probably one of the biggest challenges for MMS. We have four observatories and we have a lot of tests to run. At this point I have lost track of how many functional test, and CPTs. And of course, Rommell mentioned…
NOOSHA: Comprehensive Performance Tests.
CHRIS: Okay, very good.
NOOSHA: Rommell mentioned we had six months of thermal vacuum testing. One of my responsibilities was architecting those tests and making sure we tested the observatories fully, that each subsystem gets a good go at this thermal environment, or even during EMI, vibration testing. Make sure we test properly so we haven’t broken anything or that we meet all the requirements that we have to do.
CHRIS: Does each spacecraft have its own personality, would you say?
NOOSHA: Some of them do. We have some observatories we always make fun of; oh, that’s Observatory 4 with all the chassis current. It’s pretty noisy. They have their own personalities in terms of the people that work on them. We have a great team but each one is known to be a little bit different from one another.
CHRIS: Oh, so the same team doesn’t work on each of the spacecraft? It’s different teams?
NOOSHA: It depends on what area. The mechanical team, yes, they work on all of the observatories. We have a different number of people that work on testing, in terms of our test conductors. There is a group of people assigned to each observatory. That’s not to say they don’t cross test when needed but we have specific people assigned to those.
CHRIS: You said you worked on each spacecraft, Kenny. Do you have a favorite with one of the spacecraft?
NOOSHA: Ops 2. It’s blue. Blue is your favorite color.
KENNY: Ops 2. Yes. Ops 2 was built first. The build order was 2, 1, 4, 3.
CHRIS: 2, 1, 4, 3?
KENNY: Yes, sir.
CHRIS: Is that new math? Because it’s usually 1, 2, 3, 4.
ROMMELL: It’s random. You roll the dice.
CHRIS: That’s how you do it now? You just roll the dice? Okay.
KENNY: It actually came about as a result of as the spacecraft were building early on, we had some problems in one of the test facilities. So that’s what facilitated that change in the building.
CHRIS: So when you were working on spacecraft 2, did that get fully developed first and completed first before 1, 3, and 4? How did that work?
KENNY: Pretty much.
BRENT: Yeah, it did. Number 2 went through all of its integration first and the others followed in a staggered fashion.
CHRIS: How cool was it to see the first pictures of the stack? You have all four on top of each other because that’s how it’s going to be launched.
KENNY: That was cool. That was very cool.
NOOSHA: A very tall stack.
KENNY: Yes, twenty-one feet.
CHRIS: I understand it’s going to be going on an Atlas V.
CHRIS: Which leads me to the next phase. You’ve built the four spacecraft, right? You’re in the final testing phase before it gets shipped down to Kennedy Space Center?
CHRIS: What is that process of going through packaging the spacecraft, getting it ready to ship, sending it down to Kennedy, getting it unshipped, and processed for the launch vehicle, is that part of your job too?
KENNY: Yes. It’s our job in the mechanical realm. Our team built what is called a transporter used to transport the satellites from Goddard to the launch facility, which is going to be Astrotech. We have to build that and shipping a stack of two spacecraft. We have two shipments from here to Florida.
CHRIS: You’re going to tell Chris what to do in terms of how to stack those spacecraft.
KENNY: Chris has helped with stacking them but it’s actually other people on our team that are going through all of the different tests getting a lot of practice in transporting the spacecraft from Goddard to NRL to support Rommell’s thermal vac test. We’ll have to repeat that process but it will be a little different because we’ll be carrying a stack this time versus a single spacecraft. It will also be in a new transporter that we have never been used before.
CHRIS: What kind of transporter is that?
KENNY: This one is all one complete transport system, transporter and trailer. In the past we would transport on a trailer and stick a shipping container on the trailer. This is built all in one. They have front and rear steering so it gives us more mobility and flexibility in transporting. It should be a nice, smoother ride.
CHRIS: I guess you have to be careful in terms of vibrations and make sure nothing breaks on the spacecraft.
CHRIS: Is it much safer to transport it by highway as opposed to flying it down?
KENNY: Well, early on we had to make a decision on the requirements to design the structures for flight loads or over the road or transporting over the ocean which we have done at NASA before in the past. This was decided early on that we were going to transport over the road. We have isolators or shock systems in place and also environmental controls in place to do it.
CHRIS: As a fellow mechanical engineer, what would you say was the most challenging part of your job working on MMS?
CHRIS A: Probably the most challenging thing would be probably going from clean room to clean room. There’s always something going on in one observatory. Normally in a spacecraft where there’s one, you might stand down for a little while. Thermal needs to fix something, or electrical, or propulsion or any of the other subsystems need to work on something. Where as with MMS with four spacecraft, there was always something to do. If one was busy with one of Noosha’s functional tests, then two needed solar rays put on, or number 3 needed to go up on Aronson table, or we needed to do a vibe test or an acoustic test on number 4. There was definitely always something going on something; very, very little down time.
CHRIS: Ruth, with those four spacecraft making sure you have quality assurance, that has to be challenging because you have to keep track of four spacecraft.
RUTH: Yes, actually it’s very challenging but the quality engineering team, we’re really good about you could just plug and play us wherever, whatever observatory is needed.
RUTH: We can do that well. Keeping track of all these guys to make sure they’re following processes, that was also easy. I would like to say that basically everyone was quality minded. That made our job very easy.
CHRIS: You look like a happy bunch. You can tell you work well together. Do you guys spend time after work? Do you have MMS parties? Do you have parties in the clean room after you’ve completed one of the spacecraft?
NOOSHA: I insist on a party after every CPT and every thermal vacuum. It even says it on the spreadsheet for the test flow.
CHRIS: That’s one of the project requirements?
NOOSHA: Yes, it says Craig and Brent throw us a party.
CHRIS: I don’t think I’ve ever been invited to one of those.
NOOSHA: I defer to Brent on that one.
CHRIS: The mechanical was left out on that.
BRENT: It’s invitation only.
CHRIS: Invitation only. Thank you so much for joining us today. We look forward to a great launch on top of the Atlas V in March. I’m sure you’ll be down there working hard, preparing for the launch. But also, just the feeling once the rocket achieves orbit and gets into space, you can say you actually have a spacecraft orbiting the earth.
BRENT: Four of them.
CHRIS: Four of them. Yes, that’s right. How soon will you get the data back once the spacecraft is functioning?
CRAIG: Like Brent said there’s about a 5-month commissioning period. We launch in March. Around August the scientific harvest will really begin.
CHRIS: Everyone, thank you so much for joining us here today. It’s been insightful. When we come back, we’re going to be joined by another seven folks from the MMS team to see if we can get some dirt on these folks here.
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