Why can’t I fit a satellite in my pocket?

Osi Van Dessel (ENG’16), Maria kromis (ENG’16) Members of the BU Student-satellite for Applications and Training (BUSAT) group will see NASA put eight of their miniature satellites into space.

The Earth’s magnetic field can really mess up your run. One minute your Garmin is spitting out your pace, the next it’s recalculating. You look again, it’s still freakin’ recalculating.

While a blank spot in workout data is one thing, a city’s power grid is another. When our magnetic field is disrupted by electric currents,
 for example, the reliability of GPS devices and radio transmissions, not to mention multi-billion-dollar satellites, can be thrown for a loop. A solar storm in 1989, for example, plunged a Canadian province into darkness for nine hours. But what exactly is at play up there?

Last year, a group of BU students landed the opportunity to find out.
 In 2017, NASA plans to launch a BU-developed satellite into orbit. That satellite will deploy another eight satellites (imagine a toaster deploying toast). The plan: to study changes in Earth’s magnetic field caused by space weather. This is a first for the eight-year-old BU Student-satellite for Applications and Training (BUSAT) group, which brings together undergrads, graduate students, and professors to design and operate small satellites.

Their Hands

Through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, our undergrads have donned safety goggles and lab coats, bushwhacked through forests, traveled to remote corners of the world, and helped author research papers, among other things, all under the tutelage of seasoned faculty researchers. Below are a few of their undertakings in FY2016:

Corliss Kanazawa (CGS’16, SAR’18) is scrutinizing Hall Pond’s tiniest residents—the bacteria—to learn how antibiotics may alter the ecology of our water. Kanazawa and her mentor found that adding antibiotics to the samples increased the number of different types of bacteria colonies in the petri dishes, speculating that could mean the antibiotics are acting as signaling molecules.

Alexander Golob (CFA’16) spent the summer of 2015 turning BU stairwells and halls into public art. While using this project to beautify blank spaces on campus, a key goal of his research was discovering the steps necessary to secure agreement from public art hosts.

Using a deep neural network, a form of artificial intelligence that simulates brain neurons, Emily Fitzgerald (ENG’16) created a self-directed robot that can identify objects. This robot has learned to recognize specific objects—and to steer around obstacles—without human guidance.

Erin Miller (CAS’17, SPH’18) helped translate the religious text one rabbi penned in secret during the Holocaust. The project was the first complete English translation of She’eilos Uteshuvos Mima’amakim (Questions and Responses from the Depths), which recorded Jewish people’s ethical and religious dilemmas during World War II and the rabbi’s responses and opinions.

Tyrone Hou (CAS’18, KHC’18) worked in Sargent College’s Communication Neuroscience Research Lab. He developed a computer program that automatically compares a speaker’s lexical tone productions to canonical Mandarin lexical tones, providing second-language learners with feedback to help improve their Mandarin pronunciation.

“The entire idea of cube satellites,” says Osi Van Dessel (ENG’16), “is to shrink everything that a big satellite does and fit it onto a little board, so it doesn’t cost as much to get it up into space.”

Unlike the behemoths one usually pictures, the BUSAT minis are the size of DVD boxes. A NASA mule satellite will drop them roughly 280 miles above the Earth. Traveling at a speed of six miles per second, each one will measure variations in electrical currents flowing in and out of the upper atmosphere and relay the data back to NASA scientists on Earth.

Which will, among other things, we hope, lead to a cure for the Garmin hiccups.