If you build a satellite the size of a shoebox, you learn pretty much everything about it, says Emil Atz, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at Boston University. You will learn how to write a funding request, how to put in the screws that hold it together, how to test each instrument to make sure it works properly.
And then you learn to say goodbye.
“It’s a scary feeling to work full-time on a piece of hardware for four years and then stick it in the rocket launcher and never see it again,” said Atz. “I didn’t mean to close the door.”
This September, a rocket launches from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, carrying Landsat 9, a joint NASA and US Geological Survey mission. The rocket will also carry four CubeSats – compact, box-shaped satellites used for space exploration projects.
Compared to standard satellites, CubeSats are inexpensive to launch. Just like when friends share a taxi fare, tiny satellites can take a rocket ride with multiple other missions, lowering the cost of each individual mission.
One of the CubeSats coming onto the market with Landsat 9 is the Cusp Plasma Imaging Detector or CuPID. No bigger than a loaf of bread or heavier than a watermelon, CuPID does a great job. From an orbit of around 550 kilometers above the earth’s surface, the small CuPID will map the boundary at which the earth’s magnetic field interacts with that of the sun.
Atz is part of a team of employees at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, Boston University, Drexel University, Johns Hopkins University, Merrimack College, Aerospace Corporation, and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks that enables CuPID to have.
Emil Atz and Kenneth M. Simms, engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, wired elements of the CuPID space probe – short for Cusp Plasma Imaging Detector – in Goddard in January 2020. Credits: Brian Walsh
On a mission
The magnetosphere is created by the earth’s magnetic field and is a protective bubble that surrounds our planet. “Most of the time, we are pretty well shielded from the sun’s activity as the sun’s energy and particles orbit the earth,” said Brian Walsh, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Boston University and principal researcher at CuPID.
NASA scientists Michael Collier, David Sibeck and Scott Porter have teamed up to develop and demonstrate the first wide-field X-ray camera for studying a poorly understood phenomenon called “charge exchange”. Credits: NASA / Chris Gunn
But when the sun is active enough, its magnetic field can merge with that of the earth in a process called magnetic reconnection. The Earth’s magnetosphere is changing shape and solar radiation trickles towards us, potentially putting satellites and astronauts at risk.
“With CuPID we want to know what the boundary of the Earth’s magnetic field looks like and understand how and why energy sometimes enters,” said Walsh.
While missions like NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale or MMS mission fly through magnetic reconnection events to see them on a microscale, CuPID seeks a macro view. Using a soft X-ray camera with a wide field of view, CuPID observes lower-energy or “soft” X-rays that are emitted when solar particles collide with the Earth’s magnetosphere.
The construction of this camera was not easy. X-rays don’t bend as easily as visible light, so they’re much more difficult to focus. Plus, it’s like mapping the Earth’s magnetic boundary while in orbit, like sitting in the front row of a movie theater – so close that it’s difficult to see the full picture. A suitable camera must be specially built to capture a wide field of view from a relatively short distance.
16 years ago, a team of scientists, engineers, technicians, and students from the Goddard and Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia began work on a prototype. Instead of bending the light, their camera reflected or “bounced” the X-rays into focus and directed them through a grid of densely packed channels arranged to give them a wide field of view.
In 2012, Dr. Michael R. Collier, who led Goddard’s contribution to CuPID, and Goddard colleagues Dr. David G. Sibeck and Dr. F. Scott Porter used the camera for the first time in space aboard the DXL sounding rocket.
“It was so successful that we immediately worked on miniaturizing it and integrating it into a CubeSat, ”said Collier.
In 2015, a CuPID predecessor flew on a second sounding rocket flight. Soon after, the project was selected by NASA to launch the full satellite with avionics. Since then, students and scientists have been working on CuPID.
High risk, high reward
By the time California Polytechnic State University developed the first CubeSat in 1999, most satellites were the size of cars or buses and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and launch, Walsh said. These high costs discouraged taking risks. If a new, experimental tool fails, large sums of money would be lost.
A photo taken by CuPID in December 2019 when the chassis or base frame of the device met the avionics. Credits: Emil Atz
“The original goal of CubeSats was to reduce costs and enable the democratization of space,” said Collier. Lower costs mean more room for experimentation and innovation.
“You have a higher risk, but also a higher reward,” said Walsh.
The proliferation of small, experimental satellite missions has given students more opportunities to get involved in practical engineering projects.
In her first year as a mechanical engineering student at Boston University, Jacqueline Bachrach, a self-proclaimed “space kid,” enrolled in Walsh’s Introduction to Rocket Science. Shortly thereafter, she joined his laboratory and has since played an important role in the CuPID mission.
“I learned a lot of important skills that I may be able to apply to other missions,” says Bachrach, now a junior. “Everyone in the project has so much knowledge that they would like to share. It was an incredibly valuable experience, especially for a student. “
The journey ahead
The team is already preparing for CuPID’s insights into the secrets of magnetic reconnection.
Atz says he is keen to make initial contact with the satellite once he’s in space and begin transmitting data. The students will also be involved in this. He and Walsh began training several students, including Bachrach, to track the state of the satellite and interpret its data from orbit.
“On a large mission, there aren’t many opportunities for students to make a big contribution,” said Atz. “At CuPID, the students were involved in almost every step.”
For the many students and scientists involved in the 15+ year development of CuPID, the most exciting part is yet to come.
In the lab, CuPID Principal Investigator Brian Walsh admired the satellite in July 2021, the day before it left to meet the rocket launcher at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California.Credits: Emil Atz
Banner image: In April 2021, Connor O’Brien and Emil Atz will complete CuPID’s “vibration tests” to ensure that it can withstand the space environment. Credits: Brian Walsh
From Alison Gold
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Last updated: September 10, 2021 Editor: Sarah Frazier