Wireless Sensors Developed by Interdisciplinary Engineering Team to be Launched into Space
By Rich Barlow Video by Joe Chan for BU Today
On March 10, 1989, a solar eruption blasted plasma toward Earth. Canadian utility Hydro-Quebec noticed a hop-skip-and-jump in the voltage on its grid two days later. On March 13, with plasma sweeping Earth’s magnetic field and causing electric currents in the outer atmosphere, the grid shut down, plunging the province into darkness for nine hours.
Such bolts from the blue (or black) of space rarely wreak such havoc. But less severe irritants—interrupted radio transmissions, disrupted GPS devices, even rusting of pipelines—can result when electric currents course through the magnetic field, says Joshua Semeter, who’d like to know more about this phenomenon (largely because the magnetic field may be an essential ingredient for life on Earth). So would the federal government, which is why NASA has agreed to launch a network of wireless sensors named ANDESITE, developed by Semeter’s College of Engineering students to study changes in Earth’s magnetic field caused by space weather.
It is the final frontier, finally crossed: the first space launch for eight-year-old BU Student-satellite for Applications and Training, overseen by Semeter (ENG’92,’97), an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering. Colloquially known as BUSAT, the program engages students in designing and operating small satellites. Earlier this year, the BUSAT group was one of the teams from a half dozen universities that beat out nine competitors to continue receiving support from the Air Force, which has contributed more than $500,000 to BUSAT projects. (BU also provided funding.) NASA will set a date for the launch late this year, Semeter says, assuming the agency’s review shows that ANDESITE’s ejecting sensors “won’t blow up their vehicle.”
ANDESITE sensors are DVD-sized boxes packed with electronics boards, and eight of them will hitch a ride on a NASA spacecraft that will spit them out roughly 280 miles above the Earth. Each sensor, traveling at a speed of approximately six miles per second, will complete an orbit of the Earth in roughly 90 minutes. The sensors will measure variations in electrical currents flowing in and out of the upper atmosphere along Earth’s magnetic field. “From this we will learn about how turbulence forms in space plasmas and what the eventual effects of this will be” on things like radio signals, allowing for better modeling of those effects, Semeter says.
ANDESITE’s success has already led to one terrestrial development, he adds. ENG has hired Brian Walsh (GRS’09,’12) as an associate professor of mechanical engineering. Walsh researches small satellites and space technology.
“This whole idea of taking any kind of spacecraft and spitting out small sub-payloads is really experimental,” says Semeter.
“This whole idea of taking any kind of spacecraft and spitting out small sub-payloads is really experimental,” says Semeter, although ANDESITE employs “technology that’s very well established here on Earth. They use it for self-driving cars and finding cabs in a city; Uber uses this kind of thing. This is wireless mesh network technology.…Our innovation was, why can’t we use that in space? What science could you do?”
In July, government representatives visited the students’ lab at the Engineering Product Innovation Center for a demonstration of how the sensors would deploy during an upcoming zero-gravity test flight, a nausea-inducing trial that previous BUSAT students have experienced firsthand. The students rigged a contraption to gently fire sensors into a mesh net, a form of soccer-meets-space.
“Looks like a good setup,” Zane Singleton of the Defense Department’s Space Test Program and tech company MEI Technologies said at the demonstration.
Earlier in the history of miniaturized satellites, “NASA didn’t give a rat’s ass” about them, Semeter says, with one official harrumphing, “Why would somebody who drives a Ferrari care about Matchboxes?” Then the National Science Foundation convinced NASA that solid science research could be done by mini-satellites. Today, ANDESITE is but one government effort to study space weather. Last February, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite was launched to record data about solar wind.
Cody Nabong (ENG’15), ANDESITE’s project manager, joined BUSAT on a buddy’s recommendation after being stymied in his search for an internship. (A picture of his friend on a zero-gravity flight was a grabber.) “I’ve been interested in aerospace since I came here, so it wasn’t a hard decision,” says Nabong, who appreciates the hands-on practice of the classroom concepts he’s studied that the team has provided. “The computer program that you use to make your 3-D models—I got a lot of practice with that. And then I learned a bunch about communications stuff that I wouldn’t have been exposed to if I had just had courses.…The biggest thing I’ve learned is how you meet requirements for an engineering project,” he says, referring to the government competitions and reviews the ANDESITE project has hurdled.
If the foregoing sounds uber-Star Trek-y, BUSAT’s members include some liberal arts disciplines majors who came for graduate engineering study through BU’s LEAP (Late Entry Accelerated Program) initiative. One BUSAT alumnus was a building contractor from San Francisco, who was “perfectly suited for this job,” says Semeter. “He’s used to going to the project site, telling people what to do. That’s all we needed. And he was technically competent.”
Kelley found his passion while working with the BU Satellite Program & Rocket Group
By Gabriella McNevin
Andrew Kelley (ENG ’14) won The Center for Space Physics Undergraduate Research Award for his contribution to the BU Satellite Program and the Boston University Rocket Propulsion Group. The award recipient was decided by the Director of the BU Center of Space Physics, Professor John Clarke (AS); and Associate Director of the BU Center for Space Physics, Professor Joshua Semeter (ECE).
Kelley’s success was achieved in a relatively short period of time. Kelley entered BU excited to gain a versatile education in computer engineering in an accelerated 3-year program. For his first two years, like many, Kelley was unsure of his passion and did not know what career would best unite his academic skills and interests. He explored the possibilities by researching extracurricular activities that involved computer engineering. Ultimately, Kelley joined his first space program venture after his freshman year, and realized his passion in the field after his second year. It was not until his third and final year at Boston University, that Kelley dove, head-first, into space programs.
A future that blended computer engineering and space programs was first proposed to Kelley at Splash Day his freshmen year. Splash Day is an annual fair that features student organizations. Kelley recalls noticing a ten-foot model rocket hoisted on the shoulders of two students laughing and jogging to the opposite side of the field. He thought to himself, “follow those footsteps!” The name of the student organization in charge of that rocket, now known as the BU Rocket Propulsion Group, was painted on the side.
Before joining a team, Kelley weighed his enthusiasm about the BU Rocket Propulsion Group with his interest in other groups, and his collegiate goals. He spent the remaining year developing relationships with organization members, contemplating rocketry, and discovering how to best manage his time.
At the end of the academic year, Kelley and a member of the Rocket Propulsion Group were chatting about the organization. Kelley’s friend expressed some concern about the group’s leadership. The group insider mentioned that the vice president was expected to graduate with no prospect of a predecessor. Instinctively Kelley responded, “I will do it.”
Two years later, Kelley recalls those four words as the best he ever said. Joining the group helped Kelley to realize his passion for space programs, and introduced him to a network of some of his most trusted advisors, including Professor Semeter and Principal Fellow at Raytheon Missile Systems Joe Sebeny.
Towards the end of his second year at BU, Kelley was at a crossroad. He needed a summer job, and had been denied internships at Google and Microsoft. Uninterested in returning to his home in Texas, Kelley took the advice of Professor Semeter and applied to work at Boston University Student Satellite for Applications and Training program, specifically ANDESITE. It was a pivotal time for the satellite program, as it had recently been awarded an Air Force Research Laboratory grant and joined a national competition to win the opportunity to launch a satellite to orbit. As one of the newest members to the satellite program, the Texan embraced the organization’s mission to design, fabricate, and operate a low-earth-orbiting satellite.
In September 2013, the beginning of Kelley’s final year at BU, his extracurricular and academic interests melted into one. Kelley opted to complete his academic capstone requirements by completing an honors thesis, rather than a senior design project. His theses work, entitled “Design and Implementation of a 3-DOF Rocket Autopilot,” advanced both the BU Student Satellite and supported the BU Rocket Propulsion Group.
“Design and Implementation of a 3-DOF Rocket Autopilot” provided an analysis and design investigation of rocket trajectory systems to develop a functioning autopilot. Without trajectory control, a rocket would run the risk of becoming a missile.
After graduation, Kelley will spend a week with his family in Fort Worth, Texas before jet-setting to Los Angles, California to be a Space X intern. Kelley will be involved in vehicle and systems integration for the Dragon capsule.
Boston University Rocket Propulsion Group Watch the group’s second hot fire test: