Stormy with a chance of solar flares
CU-Boulder students helm an ambitious NASA space weather mission.
When NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Spacecraft (MMS) launched successfully from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in early March, reaching Earth’s low orbit in a matter of seconds, congratulatory hugs and shouts broke out in the operations center inside CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP).
The celebrants, however, were not typical mission control veterans, but rather a team of 20 CU-Boulder students—mostly undergraduates—who have been given the unique opportunity to manage crucial components of a $15 million mission that will study geomagnetic storms, solar flares and other energetic phenomena throughout the universe.
“I knew about CU-Boulder’s reputation in the space sciences,” said Esteben Rodriguez, a junior in aerospace engineering sciences from South Dakota and a member of the MMS instrument control team. “What I didn’t know was this is one of the few places in the world where undergraduates can get real mission operations experience.”
During the mission’s first six months, students will monitor the craft around the clock in four-hour shifts to assess the health of all 100 instruments on board. Each mission controller has successfully completed an intensive 10-week training program.
“We are the ones at the consoles, sending instrument commands and working closely with the flight controllers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center,” said Evan Grazer, a junior in aerospace engineering sciences who helped develop software for the MMS.
The four identical, octagonal MMS spacecraft are flying in pyramidal formation through Earth’s magnetosphere to study the effects of solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which contain billions of tons of solar particles that can potentially interfere with GPS satellites, power grids and radio communications and threaten astronaut safety.
The MMS instruments produce 3-D images by recording data more than 10 times faster than the blink of an eye. LASP students helped create an electronics package known as the Digital Fields Board, which is considered to be the “brains” of the equipment onboard each spacecraft.
The MMS spacecraft will fly in a highly elliptical orbit between about 4,400 miles and 47,000 miles in altitude before eventually extending to about 93,000 miles above Earth.
Planning a large-scale space research mission is one thing. Putting undergraduates in the driver’s seat, however, is what sets MMS apart from other recent spaceflight endeavors.
“This is one of NASA’s flagship missions and our students have the opportunity to be the first people ever to send commands and monitor the health of MMS instruments,” said Bill Possel, director of LASP Mission Operations and Data Systems. “It’s a oncein-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“When I came to CU-Boulder, I didn’t know about these kinds of opportunities,” said junior Maggie Williams of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, a MMS student controller who had previously worked on a student satellite project at the CU-Boulder-headquartered Colorado Space Grant Consortium. “I feel very fortunate.”