Montana State University

Two MSU projects receive NASA grants to fund student flight research opportunities

January 31, 2017 -- By Denise Hoepfner, MSU News Service

Brock LaMeres, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Montana State University College of Engineering, inspects a computer board on a cube satellite. The student-built satellite will be deployed to the International Space Station in January 2018.
MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-GonzalezJohn Sample, assistant professor of physics the Montana State University College of Letters and Science, is leading a team of undergraduate students in developing a terrestrial gamma-ray flash recorder.
MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

Brock LaMeres, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Montana State University College of Engineering, inspects a computer board on a cube satellite. The student-built satellite will be deployed to the International Space Station in January 2018. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

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BOZEMAN -- Two Montana State University projects will get off the ground with help from $400,000 in funding from a NASA program that encourages undergraduate students to conduct hands-on flight research.

One project sends a student-built satellite to space to demonstrate a radiation-tolerant computer technology and the other seeks to understand what causes the occasional but extraordinarily bright flashes of gamma-rays produced by the lightning that occurs within a thundercloud.

NASA awarded the two-year grants through its competitively selected Undergraduate Student Instrument Project, or USIP, program, which seeks to build science, technical, leadership and project skills among undergraduate students by offering them real-world experience in developing and flying science or technology experiments that are relative to NASA’s missions.

A project led by Brock LaMeres, associate professor in MSU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering, has received $200,000 for a student-built satellite to demonstrate a radiation-tolerant computer technology in space.

The satellite is a senior design project and one of the largest externally funded capstone projects in MSU history, LaMeres said. For the project, an interdisciplinary team will design and build a cube-shaped satellite called a CubeSat and fully plan and execute a mission to deploy the CubeSat from the International Space Station.

A prototype of the CubeSat is currently on the ISS, where it is transmitting data to MSU each week. This new grant will fund the next step in maturing the computer technology through a demonstration as a stand-alone satellite.  The satellite will remain in orbit for one to two years and test the computer in a much harsher environment than found on the ISS.

While this funding provides the opportunity to stress the computer in orbit, LaMeres said, the primary goal of the project is to provide an undergraduate student team with hands-on flight experience in conducting a space mission.

“The satellite mission will expose undergraduate students to the mission planning, flight qualification, delivery and ground operations associated with a satellite mission,” he said. “All satellite hardware and software will be developed assembled, qualified and operated by MSU undergraduate students.”

For the project, the students will take systems engineering design courses at MSU and receive mentoring in NASA’s flight qualification, safety review and delivery process from the MSU Space Science and Engineering Laboratory, called the SSEL, as the satellite is developed. MSU’s SSEL has delivered eight satellites for launch and has accumulated 14 satellite-years of operations in orbit. Radsat, as the new satellite mission is called, will be the SSEL’s ninth satellite.

Members of the Radsat team are: Colin Delaney, a senior from Bozeman majoring in physics; Jonathan Dover, a senior from Buffalo majoring in electrical engineering; David Kelly, a senior from Big Piney, Wyoming, majoring in computer engineering; Matthew Johnson, a senior from Bozeman majoring in mechanical engineering; Colton Marchwinski, a senior from Billings majoring in electrical engineering and Daniel Mills, a senior from Bozeman majoring in electrical engineering.

A project led by John Sample, assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Physics in the College of Letters and Science, also was awarded $200,000 to develop an instrument that detects gamma-ray flashes associated with the type of lighting that occurs within a cloud.

The instrument, called a Light and Fast TGF Recorder, or LAFTR, is used to record terrestrial gamma-ray flashes, or TGFs, which are extraordinarily bright bursts of radiation produced during some lightning strikes. TGFs last anywhere from a tenth of a millisecond to around two milliseconds and can pose a radiation risk.

“TGFs happen rarely, but are associated with intra-cloud lightning, which is the kind of lightning you see flash inside the cloud but that doesn’t come down to the ground,” Sample said.

The LAFTR is designed to be flown on a weather balloon, up into the region just above a thundercloud where the gamma-ray signal is the strongest. Scientists believe TGFs are beamed upwards, Sample said.

“This is the ‘light’ part,” he said.

The ‘fast’ part, Sample said, comes from the desire to count the gamma-ray photons as quickly as possible, with the goal of counting several thousand gamma-rays in approximately one millisecond.

“To date, most TGFs have been observed from spacecraft that are orbiting at an altitude of approximately 600 kilometers (373 miles), which means that the gamma-rays are much more diffused by the time they get there,” he said.

By going much closer to the region where the TGF is created – approximately 10-15 kilometers (six to nine miles) near the tops of thunderclouds -- LAFTR will be able to measure fainter TGFs to see if they exist and to see how the time profile of the gamma-rays looks in detail never before captured.

“This detail can help us determine the underlying mechanism that causes the TGFs,” Sample said.

Sample said there are competing models that aim to explain TFGs, but the researchers hope data from the LAFTR will stand apart.

“We’d also like to learn about TGFs that might exist, but are too weak to be measured by spacecraft,” he said. “These might actually have important implications for airplanes flying over thunderstorms.”

Members of the LAFTR team are: Jonathan Johnson, a senior from Bozeman majoring in computer science; Jonathan Murtaugh, a senior from Chicago majoring in physics and philosophy; John Gannon, a senior from Livingston majoring in electrical engineering and Hispanic studies; Charles Varney, a senior  from Lafitte, Louisiana, majoring in electrical engineering and Morgan Estberg, a film and photography major from Clancy who graduated in December.

The MSU projects were among 47 to receive funding out of 89 proposals submitted to the NASA USIP program. Award amounts ranged from $50,000 to $200,000, depending on the project, and totaled more than $8 million. Projects selected will fly on suborbital and orbital vehicle platforms, such as CubeSats, aircraft, sounding rockets, balloons and other commercial platforms and NASA will cover launch and flight costs.

Of the 43 different schools that received funding, MSU was one of only four that received multiple awards.

Through USIP, NASA offers real-world experiences, with the goal of developing students’ skills and capabilities in science, technology, engineering and math – skills critical to building a robust, STEM-literate workforce and achieving the nation's exploration goals.

Brock LaMeres, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, lamers@montana.edu or 994-5987; John Sample, Department of Physics, john.sample2@montana.edu or 994-1693

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