By Rachel Riley
When it comes to mechanical engineering, Brian Walsh delights in the challenges of building spacecraft and other devices that are able to withstand the furious vibrations of rocket launches, immense swings in temperature between areas of sun and shadow, and massive doses of radiation present beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
“There are a lot of very fundamental questions that present themselves in the space laboratory that I find compelling,” said Walsh, who began teaching as an Assistant Professor at Boston University’s College of Engineering in the fall.
Much of Walsh’s research, from conducting research to designing instruments that measure space environment conditions, has focused on one major question: How can energy from the sun affect the Earth’s plasma environment?
“As I got deeper into the field, it seemed that to answer new questions, you needed to have new devices to make measurements,” Walsh said. “I became more and more involved in developing new detectors and developing new spacecraft.”
Walsh has contributed to two large-scale NASA missions. While working on THEMIS, or Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms, he helped calibrate instruments on a set of five washing machine-sized spacecraft that would measure electric fields in space and further scientists’ understanding of how energy passes through space near Earth. He also contributed to the MMS (Magnetospheric Multiscale) mission, which aimed to build spacecraft that would measure properties of plasma in space faster than ever before.
“One of my targets here at Boston University is, rather than doing very large NASA spacecraft projects, to do smaller spacecraft,” said Walsh. “Because they’re lower cost, you can do higher risk, higher reward type activities.”
Walsh is currently working on a CubeSat, or small satellite around 4 inches in length and three pounds in weight. As part of the NASA funded project, Boston University will be constructing, testing, and operating the CubeSat on orbit from campus. The CubeSat, named CuPID for Cusp Plasma Imaging Detector, is likely to be an interdisciplinary effort between ENG and the College of Art and Science’s Astronomy Department.
“There are a number of reasons why you would want to build something new,” he said. “One is to deepen our understanding of a certain area, and that is more of a scientific motivation. Another reason is to build better technology to facilitate other activities.”
Outside of his engineering career, Walsh enjoys long-distance running. In November, he participated in the JFK 50 Mile in Washington County, Maryland.
He has previous teaching experience from his time at as a researcher at the University of California Berkeley and the Goddard Space Flight Center, where he worked with undergraduates. The enthusiasm students bring to the table is a highlight of his profession, he said.
“I’ve worked with a lot of professionals at large research institutes, and people get very set in their ways and used to working nine to five,” Walsh said. “Students get passionate about things and just go. They run with an idea and don’t burden themselves with the standard of what people have done in the past or the restrictions of regular work hours. It’s really impressive and fun to be around.”