Interview: Rishabh Maharaja

May 16, 2017

Project Hermes, a student-led endeavor that investigates command and control of satellites using the TCP-IP protocol, originated with an idea put forward by Capitol professor Rishabh Maharaja while teaching a class at the university. Since then, Maharaja has gone on to serve as principal investigator and mentor for the project, which will be included with the Cactus-1 payload scheduled for launch by NASA in late 2017.

Maharaja holds a master’s degree in Astronautical engineering from Capitol and has served on the faculty since graduation. He is deputy flight operations team lead for the EO-1 mission at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. He spoke with Capitol Chronicle about the genesis of Hermes, its mission, and the ways in which it brings together students from multiple disciplines.

What is Project Hermes? What does it aim to accomplish?

The goal of Project Hermes is to research TCP-IP based satellite buses. It brings together astronautical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science – thus reflecting different facets of Capitol. Students from these different disciplines come together to work on a single goal, namely the design of a TCP-IP based bus architecture. Eventually, we’re hoping to add cybersecurity and business students to the team.

This project also demonstrates the link between the classroom experience and the collaborative learning experience represented by student projects. I originally came up with the concept for Project Hermes while teaching Introduction to Space during 2013, and I then mentored the student team as it turned that concept into a reality.

What makes this project unique?

It provides a proof of concept that allows for the use of commercial, off-the-shelf gear such as Android phones or WiFi modems in commanding and controlling satellites. In 2015 the TCP-IP based bus was successfully demonstrated on a Sound Rocket Flight based out of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. In 2015 Team Hermes was able to established a Wi-Fi network in space for system bus use, pair an Android smartphone in space to an Iridium-based Wi-Fi hotspot device, utilize the Iridium constellation for communication with the payload, use and program various applications available on the Google Play store to function as our Flight Software, and use TCP/IP devices (smartphone and smartwatch) on the ground as our Telemetry & Command System.

The low earth orbit flight on CACTUS-1 will allow team Hermes to demonstrate the use of Iridium constellation for a satellite-satellite link and to use the tracking data provided by Iridium for determining an orbit.

What are some of the specific roles assigned to team members from different fields?

The astronautical engineering students generally look at the satellite as a system; they determine what it needs in order to function. The electrical engineering students are responsible for devising the power scheme – how the satellite is going to be powered, and what it needs to do in order to remain power-positive and functional. They put together the battery and the solar panels – whatever is required in order for the system to work. The computer science students do the programming. They work with the astronautical engineers to determine what the payload needs in order to function, and then they develop flight software that corresponds to those needs.

In the future, we’ll have cybersecurity students whose role will be to protect assets and keep them from being hacked. We’ll also bring business students on board to oversee budgeting, allocation of hours, and other managerial tasks.

What do you see as the main benefits for students from working on a project of this nature?

They have the opportunity to work on a multidisciplinary team. They come to the table offering something that their course curriculum teaches, and then when they work with other course curricula, they learn concepts and skills that are associated with those fields. In this way, their knowledge expands.

Say I’m a business major, for example, and I find myself working with electrical engineering majors. I’ll learn something about where electrical engineering fits into the project, and this in turn can strengthen my business perspective.

What is unique about Capitol in terms of our ability to provide opportunities for interdisciplinary education? What makes us well-poised to offer these opportunities?

We always encourage student growth and exploration. In my Introduction to Space class, for instance, I often have students who are taking it as an elective. They may be electrical engineering, computer engineering, or computer science majors, and they are in the class because they want to learn something about space. Capitol allows them to take courses such as this as electives. The university in general encourages students to “think outside the box” – it’s part of our institutional culture. We’re always glad to see students investigating something that is different and at the same time related to their primary area of focus.

Students are also encouraged to come up with concepts, develop them into projects, and form multidisciplinary teams. Hermes is just one example of such a project. Various other astronautical engineering projects such as CACTUS-1 and TrapSAT also encourage inter-disciplinary collaboration.

You’ve been instrumental in the launch of Capitol’s new Space Flight Operations Training Center (SFOTC), the successor to the Space Operations Institute. How does the SFOTC foster interdisciplinary education?

As a professional flight operator, I can tell you that working with people from different disciplines is very much part of what goes on in the real world. The SFOTC, with its simulator and telemetry software, will encourage this because it will allow students from different disciplines to see how a spacecraft is flown. The SFOTC will be integrated into a variety of courses offered by the astronautical engineering program, and many of these classes will be open to students from other fields.

Professor, Astronautical Engineering