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On-site at NASA, students aid mission preparations

With its Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS), an ambitious plan that involves launching four identical spacecraft simultaneously, NASA hopes to gain a better understanding of a mysterious process known as magnetic reconnection.

And Capitol College students are helping to lay the groundwork.

Astronautical engineering student Anh Ho and aspiring computer scientist Nia Sojourner have been interning at NASA through a program managed by Capitol’s Space Operations Institute (SOI) and Columbus Technologies, Inc.

On-site at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, the two seniors run tests to ensure that the subsystems on board the four MMS satellites will work together without a hitch.

A third student, Joseph Kaminsky, recently graduated from Capitol but was retained by the program over the summer.

“This will be one of the first times that NASA-Goddard launches a fleet of sorts,” explained Capitol’s assistant director of foundation relations, Andrew Exner, who oversees the SOI’s contract with Columbus. “And so the communication among the different bodies once they’re up in the atmosphere and trying to communicate among themselves, as well as trying to communicate with the ground – that’s going to be complex.”

Ironing out those complexities requires ongoing collaboration among scientists and engineers, Exner said. "The scientists describe this vision of what they want to do, what they want to see, and the engineer says, 'ok, I have all these specifications, let’s build it, let’s make that happen'. And so Anh, Nia, Joe and all the other students who have worked on MMS are directly involved in that."

Capitol, located only minutes away from the Goddard campus, has a long-standing relationship with NASA. In 2002, the space agency provided a grant to establish the SOI, a consortium that brings together government, industry and educational partners with the goal of training students to meet the ever-changing skill needs of the aerospace industry.

The benefits, Exner says, go both ways. Industry gains access to emerging science and engineering talent, while the participating students gain experience on projects and missions – experience which will make for strong resumes as they prepare for the job market.

It can also lead directly to full-time positions with the contracting companies involved in NASA missions – as has already happened with Kaminsky and Sojourner. Hired as a software engineer by Honeywell International on July 21st, Kaminsky is continuing on at MMS as part of his new position. Sojourner, meanwhile, is now wrapping up her internship after landing a job with Libration Systems. She too will continue to work at MMS.

Students: “We are part of the team”

Ho and Sojourner are both building on prior experience at NASA. The two students interned with the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) during their freshman years. As part of MMS, they are involved in a variety of tasks.

“Mainly we work on the Integration Trending and Plotting System (ITPS), running the report after every test. We provide the test engineers with accurate after-test data, and are able to tell them if there are anomalies with the instruments in the spacecraft. We also work on the contingency flow chart, used to troubleshoot spacecraft problem when it is in orbit,” Ho said. “We also do scripting and software development, and we join with the test conductor to perform tests on our four satellites."

Recently, the two Capitol students helped conduct a thermal vacuum chamber test.

“A satellite is placed in a chamber that can simulate temperatures in space,” Sojourner explained. “It can get really hot, as when facing the sun, or really cold, as when the satellite is away from the sun. The satellite contains different equipment and it’s my job to monitor the equipment and make sure everything works properly.”

The cross-disciplinary nature of the MMS program is one of its most exciting aspects, she said.

“It broadens my perspective on how engineers, computer scientists and people in other technical fields can collaborate, how things all fold together. It’s helped me to learn how to work with people who have different areas of expertise, and to work with different mentors. And that’s part of my goal – to learn as much as I can,” Sojourner said.

According to Ho, the opportunity has helped provide a bridge from the classroom and laboratory to real world applications. “I’ve gained a tremendous amount of experience working on those satellites, including the chance to go inside the cleanroom where the spacecraft are being built,” he said.

“At MMS, we’re working with many spacecraft engineers and test conductors who are ready to provide training and share their experience. They don't treat us like interns, but like real systems engineers and a part of the team.”

Photo: Nia Sojourner

Thursday, July 31, 2014