NASA EDGE joins the ELaNa X Teams as their CubeSats deploy less than two hours after a successful ride into space. Dr. Charles Norton (NASA/JPL) and Scott Higginbotham (NASA/Kennedy) share the excitement with students from Montana State University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
MAN: Go Delta. Go SMAP.
MISSION CONTROL: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, [rocket engines] 1. Engines start and lift off of Delta 2 rocket with SMAP, making global observations of soil moisture for climate forecasting.
FRANKLIN: As you can see, some very, very interesting information. Whoa ho! Oh man! What is going on? Blair, where have you been?
BLAIR: I missed the launch. I saw the launch but I’ve got FIREBIRD 2. The students aren’t going to be able to see their data. It’s going to be an academic nightmare, scientific problem. I let them down.
FRANKLIN: No, I wouldn’t be that hurt over the situation. I assure you that FIREBIRD 2 was on board. It just took off. We had separation of SMAP from the Delta 2 rocket and FIREBIRD 2 as well as the other CubeSats will be deployed momentarily.
BLAIR: Now I am perplexed. What do they have? What was I carrying? Do they have backups or duplicates or parallel universes? I’m not sure. I’m a little confused right now.
FRANKLIN: Okay. We’ll work that out shortly but I want to know what happened to you. I want to know about your journey here.
BLAIR: I can tell you just a few things that I recall from the trip. Let’s check them out right now.
BLAIR: That’s kind of how I saw things Franklin. It was fairly interesting. But if you’re right and FIREBIRD is still intact then I’ll feel better about things.
FRANKLIN: We’re into the second half of our show. I’m glad you were able to make it here on time. We need to start looking at the interviews and talking to the schools that were involved with the CubeSats. You actually talked to some while you were over at Montana State.
BLAIR: Actually, that is true Franklin. I had a great time with the students. As you know, I get really into the whole college environment when I get there. Let’s find out what the students say about their mission.
BLAIR: FIREBIRD 2 is launching on ELaNa X. So, I am here at Montana State University in beautiful Bozeman, MT to meet the FIREBIRD 2 team to learn all I can about their CubeSat. Who knows? Maybe I can play a role in the success of their upcoming launch.
BLAIR: Nate, can you actually tell me what FIREBIRD stands for?
NATE: Uh, that’s a lot of words.
MATTHEW: Firebird is… uh, it helps when I see it.
ADAM: It’s a pretty intense acronym.
JERRY: Focused Investigations of Relativistic Electron MicroBurst Intensity, Range, and Dynamics.
ADAM: The FIRE and BIRD actually mean two separate things, where FIRE is the payload where the “F” stands for fire. And the “B,” bird is the bus. The payload is provided by the University of New Hampshire, and the “BIRD” was provided by us.
BLAIR: You’ve got like embedded acronyms. You’re stacking acronyms on acronyms.
ADAM: It’s like this circular acronym thing.
BLAIR: Is that part of the requirement when you join the team that you have to memorize that.
NATE: I don’t think it is a requirement. I think it is a right of passage.
BLAIR: That’s good. You need those. Those are important.
BLAIR: What is FIREBIRD 3 & 4 or what are 3 & 4 FIREBIRD?
NATE: It’s FIREBIRD Mission 2; Flight Units 3 & 4.
NATE: It’s a little bit confusing with the numerical naming system. FIREBIRD is a constellation of 2, 1 ½ U spacecraft. Essentially what were doing is measuring the relativistic electrons trapped in the inner Van Allen Belt, specifically around the poles of the Earth. Essentially, what happens is electrons from the Sun get trapped in the radiation belts. What they do is they bounce back and forth really fast. What happens is this phenomenon called Electron Microbursts where it’s this period of very highly precipitating electrons where they terminate into the Earth. We’re trying to catch these phenomenon. They’re really quick; less than a second; microseconds.
NATE: Microbursts, really quick. What were doing is we’re trying to measure the bursts, intensity, ranging, and dynamics. Essentially, what happens is when our spacecraft are launched from the rocket out of a peapod, we calibrated the springs that separated the two so they separate very slowly. We have GPS units on board. Hopefully, we’re going to have two units flying through the radiation belts and we’ll catch some activity. Right? The second will follow through it. Through the time and GPS data we have on board, we’ll be able to figure out how long these things last, how big they are, and when these events happen. They’re relatively rare as well.
BLAIR: You guys have a unique challenge in that you’re not using a propulsion system.
NATE: Nope. Yep.
BLAIR: How does that work? Do you just take the best that you get upon launch?
NATE: It’s a whole bunch of math, a whole bunch of modeling. We spent a lot of time with software on the ground. We were designing our mission, designing our various subsystems to make ensure we will be where we want to be.
BLAIR: What’s the biggest challenge for you writing all the software for a mission of this kind?
MATTHEW: The biggest challenge with writing any software is testing it. When you start getting into something so complex, even a simple CubeSat, there’s so many variables. You can have this input change at one time and this input change at another time. It’s just really testing all the different cases. If it runs fine one day, maybe it won’t the next. Testing is the biggest hassle.
BLAIR: Now, when you encounter a bug in the software especially in space are you able to fix it from a software standpoint?
MATTHEW: Yeah. There’s two layers of software, the main operating software and then there’s command sequences which are basically commands we can store on the spacecraft and have them execute at certain times of the day, or when it first boots up, or after a certain event has occurred. We’re not able to patch the actual operating software on orbit but we can upload new sequences so that if there is a problem on boot, it can run a command that might fix that problem.
BLAIR: A little bit harder to fix things in space I would imagine.
MATTHEW: It is. And it comes back to the same thing. You have to test the software patches before you release them because maybe the spacecraft isn’t working quite how you want it but this patch might kill it. With the first two FIREBIRD units that launched about a year ago, we had the engineering development unit here on the ground. Now, that engineering development unit is going to be launching into space with another FIREBIRD this time. We still have a little bit of hardware left here on the ground that we can test with and test changes to the spacecraft software.
BLAIR: What goes into the decision to build your own board? Do you usually do that because it’s an opportunity for you to try something or is it dissatisfaction with what you were able to get and you’re kind of honing it?
NATE: Originally our first spacecraft, MEROPE, launched in 2006; made a big crater in Kazakhstan. We originally on that mission designed everything. I wasn’t here at that time but we designed everything, same thing for HRBE that launched in 2011. We designed every single thing but for FIREBIRD we decided to branch out and focus on what we wanted to design. There’s an optimization problem trying to see what we want to purchase commercial off the shelf and what we want to design. Specifically for the power board, we were not satisfied with its performance. It did not perform how we expected it to. We designed our own because we could not rely on the power board we were using previously.
BLAIR: What kind of challenges do you face putting together a power system for one of these CubeSats?
ADAM: The big thing about the power systems is it’s the heart and soul of the spacecraft where maybe the flight computer is the brain. The chassis of the structure is the skeleton. The power system has to distribute all the power to all the different components of the spacecraft. All that power has to be consistent to everything. It’s a really big challenge to make sure the batteries are properly sourcing the power, properly getting charged by the solar panels and there’s no break in the loop. You’ve got to be careful you’re not just going to charge the batteries below a certain point so they’re going to be in a broken state on orbit.
BLAIR: Heat can be a real problem on the spacecraft. What are some of the things you did to help dissipate the heat problem? I always thought the heat problem would be something from the sun but there are some heat problems from the instrument itself and things like that. How do you handle those problems in space?
JERRY: We have a few small components that actually generate quite a lot of heat. We have to basically get that from inside the spacecraft to outside of the spacecraft. We have to figure out either conductively or radiation. Turns out you just paint it a certain color. You paint it black, basically, is what it comes down to.
JERRY: That helps the radiation.
BLAIR: How do you determine what’s causing heat in space if one hasn’t launched yet. Is that in some of your testing you do here?
JERRY: Yes, we have a thermal vacuum chamber over there. We do a lot of testing there. We can get it cold. We can get it hot. In the vacuum, we can test how well the spacecraft will shed the heat.
BLAIR: Are there some structures that are just better at reducing heat than others? Did you consider even making the spacecraft out of a different material at any point?
JERRY: We didn’t have that much design freedom, unfortunately. Aluminum is pretty good. Aluminum is one of the best and that’s what it’s made out of. But at the time we had to get it delivered quickly. We didn’t have time to make drastic changes like that.
BLAIR: I’m looking at this CubeSat and it’s very similar looking to the Tesseract.
JERRY: I don’t know what that is.
BLAIR: You don’t know what that the Tesseract is?
ADAM: [whispering] Tesseract? [laughing]
NATE: I’m not sure what a Tesseract is.
BLAIR: It was in the Avengers.
NATE: Uh huh.
BLAIR: The device that opened the portal to Asgard.
ADAM: Oh, yeah. I don’t think that’s… I think that’s coincidental.
BLAIR: Coincidental, okay. So there’s no danger of this opening a portal and perhaps bringing about our doom.
JERRY: We could be. I hope not. I’m not sure.
BLAIR: I hope not? Of the Avengers, who do you think would be more inclined to build a CubeSat of the Avengers that you know of?
MATTHEW: I would probably go with Ironman, though.
BLAIR: Ironman. He’s got the whole Stark Industries.
BLAIR: I wonder if Stark Industries has a CubeSat department?
MATTHEW: Uh, you know, I don’t know.
NATE: Originally our first spacecraft, MEROPE, launched in 2006. Made a big crater in Kazakhstan.
AGENT COULSON: Sir, we found it.
BLAIR: Apart from not understand the whole Avengers mythology, the students are a really bright group. The real question is how can I convince Dave Kumplar that I have the enthusiasm it takes to be a member of this program. It’s really important that I make a very good impression on Dave Kumplar the Principal Investigator for FIREBIRD if I want to be a valuable member of this team.
DAVE: Well Blair, being enthusiastic and gung ho is certainly a part of being a good member of the team but there’s a lot more to being a rocket scientist than just dressing for the cause.
BLAIR: This really reflects. This is natural for me. I feel really comfortable and ready to support FIREBIRD and the entire team with my MSU get up.
DAVE: It’s a great start.
BLAIR: What I want to know is if I’m going to be a member of this team, tell me a little bit about how Montana State and you, in particular, got involved in CubeSats because this is a really growing industry.
DAVE: It wasn’t a growing industry at the time, 14 years ago, but I had a 40-year career doing Space Science research. I started that career as a sophomore in college building space flight hardware. I wanted to come to an institution like Montana State and give our students, these students, the current day students that kind of experience building small satellites. Big satellites are hard and costly to build. Small satellites, you can build them for a finite amount of money.
BLAIR: It’s still the same process and still requires a lot of the same skills. You do get a lot from going through a program like that.
DAVE: Yeah, and in effect not only the skills, all of the subsystems, all of the functionalities of a spacecraft are the same irrespective of its size. It needs a power system. It needs a brain. It needs the heart, the communication link. So, whether it’s Hubble Space Telescope or a 3U CubeSat, it’s the same amount of stuff. Most of the things that can go wrong, if they break something, if they let the smoke of a board. We get a lot of blue smoke in the room when we hook up the wires wrong. It is part of the learning process and understanding how those mistakes can be corrected and not happen. Now, you have two satellites flying for FIREBIRD already that have been successful, even with the challenges that they faced, and you’re about to launch two more. What’s next on the horizon for MSU?
DAVE: We’re really interested in achieving three different goals. I want to train students; experiential training and how to be space engineers in Space Science. We want to do Science in space hence the FIREBIRD type mission. We’re also interested in building on the technologies to make these very small satellites much more capable. Yes, we’re finding that we want to get to larger and larger sizes too; 1U, 3U, and now we’re working in the 6U regime.
BLAIR: Now, the 6U is the primary motivation to expand to 6U really so you can do more Science or is it also related to things like maybe being able to add propulsion or some other compatibility.
DAVE: You want to get more power and surface area. It gets us more solar rays, more solar panels, more solar cells. It gets us more power. We can put more capability into a box that’s a little bit larger. For example, we have a proposal in right now to fly a CubeSat into an orbit around the Sun. It’s going to carry a laser communication system. That takes a little more space than a standard RF radio transmitter.
BLAIR: A CubeSat around the sun? Did I hear that correctly?
DAVE: That’s right.
BLAIR: How would you, and we’re speaking very enthusiastically clad laymen’s terms, but how are you going to get your CubeSat to the Sun without a major propulsion system?
DAVE: NASA is developing the next large launch vehicle, the space launch system. NASA has agreed to allow secondary payloads to ride along on what’s called the EM1 flight in 2017 or 2018. Those satellites will be carried into an orbit that places them past the moon and into an orbit around the sun. So, even without propulsion on the satellite, it’s the big rocket booster that is going to get us on the right trajectory.
BLAIR: That would be something.
DAVE: A pretty cool opportunity.
BLAIR: Yeah. I am a really big fan of space weather, not terrible space weather but good, healthy space weather. I could see a lot of opportunities. Perhaps I could play a role on the team.
DAVE: I’ll bet that we could get you on this team if you could do more one arm pushups against our sports champ out on the field at homecoming this weekend. You’ll become a member of our Space Science & Engineering Lab team.
BLAIR: That’s quite a challenge there because I can’t do two hand pushups. I’ve got to get in shape to do those. I’ll work on it. Okay? Because I want to be a part of the team anyway you see fit. I want to try it because obviously you guys are doing some great work, and if I can be a part of it, all the better.
DAVE: I’ll give you $10 bucks if you beat Champ.
BLAIR: All right.
BLAIR: Joining us now is Alex Saunders who is a student at Cal Poly. Thanks for being on the show with us.
ALEX: Oh, thanks. It’s great to be here. I heard you had a bet with Montana on who could do the most pushups?
BLAIR: Yeah, I did. Actually, that’s true. We didn’t get to follow through on the bet but I’m sure I could crush him in one arm push-up competition. I’m pretty good.
ALEX: All right. Well, I have some money riding on that.
BLAIR: Okay, if we resolve that, we’ll have to settle up. Anyway, what we’re here to talk about now is ExoCube, which I believe is the CubeSat launching for Cal Poly. I’m not sure I think you guys are the last to deploy today. Is that right?
ALEX: Yeah, we’ll be the last out of our peapod.
BLAIR: Tell us, what is ExoCube?
ALEX: ExoCube is a weather satellite that we’ve been working on at Cal Poly. It’s measuring hydrogen, oxygen, helium and nitrogen ions & neutrals in the exosphere, which haven’t been measured in a while in the exosphere.
BLAIR: That’s basically for space weather, correct?
ALEX: Yes. And possibly ion storms and when you get a solar flare, then the ions that occur during that in the exosphere.
BLAIR: Gotcha. Your role on ExoCube, what did you do in working on ExoCube?
ALEX: I was an electronics engineer. I designed a lot of our sensor interface and interfaced too with the Goddard instruments, the Mass Spectrometer.
BLAIR: Did you say NASA Goddard?
BLAIR: You were actually working on something that they would use or what was the relationship with Goddard?
ALEX: We needed an instrument and this was sponsored by the NSF looking for a Mass Spectrometer. Mass spectrometers are normally very large, so we had to miniaturize it. NASA Goddard said, Hey, we can miniaturize it. They built us a miniaturized mass spectrometer. We had to communicate with them to interface with them. How are we going to talk to you? How are we going to get your data? We’ve got to work closely with them.
BLAIR: This is one of the things that I think is so great about the whole ElaNa program. Not only do you get to build satellites but you really go through that entire process of working with other organizations and institutions to get payload, to get instruments and things like that. It’s really a cool thing.
ALEX: It really is. I got to talk with them. They’re a professional organization. We’re students. As we were going through we’re getting advice as well on how maybe we can improve. It was pretty awesome.
BLAIR: We’re back in the Lab with Keith Mashber and the research engineer here at Montana State University. Keith, what are some of the things you’re seeing in the CubeSat world that are actually going to help the students in the next few years?
KEITH: Well, I would say one of the most disruptive new methodologies is the advent of additive manufacturing in building satellites or 3-D printing as it’s more traditionally know. It’s more diverse than trying to build something truly out of metal where you’re restricted to standard processes, standard materials; and with the additive manufacturing, you can build structures that you can not make using more traditional manufacturing methods.
BLAIR: So looking into the future for Montana State and the projects they have here, is the next satellite going to be done through additive manufacturing or will that be several satellites down the line.
KEITH: Well, I think we are already setting the tone for our next generations of small satellites with our print sat mission, which is actually a 3D printing base satellite structure with all your standard avionics systems inside of it. What I would really like to see our next generation satellites utilizing additive manufacturing to the greatest extent possible, because of the wonderful advances and savings and time, and assembly. One of the greatest advantages I think that additive manufacturing can do is build these assemblies with very few fasteners. As a guy who spends most of his day putting the spacecraft together, anything you can do to reduce part counts, to reduce complexity will save us all time and money in the end.
BLAIR: How would 3D printing or additive manufacturing have helped assemble a mission like FIREBIRD?
KEITH: Well, I’ll just say access is a problem. Depending on the levels of assembly you can only do certain things at certain times. You really have to plan out the assembly in exquisite detail, and in some cases certain operations are impeded by a week, a few days, while you wait on apoxy to dry because you can’t bolt this next thing together. By using additive manufacturing we could really simplify the assembly process and reduce the overall build time substantially. For us, that would be a wonderful benefit.
BLAIR: I see a lot of advances coming your way for CubeSats. It’s very exciting. Hopefully, when I am fully adopted as a team member, you will have a full proof CubeSat structure that I can’t damage and we can possibly launch a successful CubeSat together if I can get on board here.
KEITH: That sounds like a great idea.
BLAIR: I appreciate it. I’m going to do everything I can to prove I am qualified.
BLAIR: It was awesome to spend time with the FIREBIRD 2 team here at Montana State University. But I’m not quite sure I’ve done enough to be a valued part of this team, if only I could find a way.
KEITH: We will very carefully package this spacecraft inside this box and ship it off to Vandenberg Air Force Base.
BLAIR: Spacecraft in there?
KEITH: That’s correct.
BLAIR: FIREBIRD on the move. FIREBIRD on the move. Satellite in hand, it’s Vandenberg or bust. Go! I’m going to be part of the team. Oh, watch out! A little side step, nice! [Blair breathing]
BLAIR: Just looking at that video, I’m sitting here thinking I look so young. I feel like I am so much older now after that. Thanks for being on the show with us. We do want to talk about GrifEx. Just to let everyone know during our interview here, we’re actually going to get word from someone just off camera that the deployments are going well. Charles, tell us a little bit about GrifEx.
CHARLES: GrifEx is a technology validation mission that is sponsored by our NASA’s Earth Science Technology Office. What we’re doing is flying a very, very high speed camera to be used to help us understand atmospheric chemistry and pollution transport from Geo. We want to ensure that the camera works properly in space. It will be part of a mission…
[Clapping & cheering]
CHARLES: Sounds like FIREBIRD just deployed. [laughing]
BLAIR: I just want to say I am very interested in the Science of GRIFEX but we got audible celebration from the control room. It’s really good to know that FIREBIRD is out.
BLAIR: They’re very excited.
CHARLES: It is very exciting.
BLAIR: And you’re on deck now.
CHARLES: Looking forward to going next. Yes.
BLAIR: A little more stressful?
CHARLES: No, not stressful; just very excited. We’re looking forward to our safe deployment and starting operations. As I was briefly saying it’s going to support an instrument called the Panchromatic Fourier Transform Spectrometer.
BLAIR: I’m so glad you said that. I tried earlier but it wasn’t working to well.
CHARLES: It’s a mouthful. Exactly, exactly.
BLAIR: You said this was part of a camera?
BLAIR: Will that provide photo quality images or are these scientific images?
CHARLES: It provides scientific imagery. In fact, this is a copy or an engineering sample of the device that we’re flying. What it is called is a ROIC or Read Out Integrated Circuit. It takes a very high frame rate imagery and that will allow us to make these future measurements as part of the PanFTS instrument.
CHARLES: Sounds like GRIFEX has deployed.
BLAIR: Yes. You’re good.
CHARLES: Yes, yes, and our collaboration with University of Michigan, I am sure are very proud as well, as we are at JPL.
BLAIR: I wanted to ask you whether the Pan…
BLAIR: Whether it’s actually already been validated or that’s being tested on this flight.
CHARLES: Oh, we’re testing this ROIC chip on this flight. Once we can verify it’s working well, we’ll integrate it into the PanFTS instrument, which we hope to finish for future missions. By doing this flight, we’ll learn a lot and it will benefit all types of missions going forward.
[Clapping & cheering]
BLAIR: The third and final CubeSat has been deployed. It’s a success.
CHARLES: That’s great news.
BLAIR: We heard cheers slightly off camera in the other room but tell us how is the mood? How is everybody feeling after a successful deployment?
SCOTT: I think we’re relieved. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s been a long road. We’ve been working on this mission for about 18 months to bring everything together. It always feels good to finally put the spacecraft where they belong. The real work begins for the CubeSat teams. They have to go perform their mission. We go home and get ready for the next launch.
BLAIR: I tell you I am proud of these kids. Whenever you talk to the students and realize you’re talking to college students that are building satellites. That is such a great resume builder for them but then it’s also a big benefit for NASA and other folks that are getting to launch missions on a much smaller scale. Tell us a little bit about the success that we have on this mission.
SCOTT: Absolutely. There are several tangible benefits that the taxpayers get from missions like these. First of all, we are encouraging the next generation of scientists and engineers to go out and do great things. We’ve been talking all about that today. These students are a great example of that. There are many, many more behind the scenes. These are just the representatives for those teams but there are a lot of others that have helped make this happen. That’s a huge thing. The second thing is we get to go demonstrate technology. GRIFEX is a great example of that. This is a way to buy down risk on more expensive missions in the future. These CubeSats are relatively inexpensive, certainly order of magnitude or two less than what we would see for the large spacecraft that GRIFEX will ultimately be involved with. That’s a big thing. Thirdly, scientific return. We’re all interested in broadening man’s depth of scientific knowledge. These missions are doing real science in space. So, for a relatively inexpensive price we get some interesting science returns as well.
BLAIR: That is what I think is really interesting; that it’s providing a real economical way to get real data in space. As you know I tried to put together my own CubeSat.
SCOTT: I remember that.
BLAIR: I wasn’t as successful as others.
SCOTT: No, you weren’t.
BLAIR: But none the less, it seems to me that we’re seeing a lot of benefits in a lot of areas. It’s like you’ve got industry benefits, NASA benefits, educational institution benefits. Win, win, win.
SCOTT: Win cubed.
BLAIR: Nice. It’s almost like he planned it. Anyway, you’re watching NASA EDGE, an inside and outside look at all things NASA.
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