What do you do at Space Sciences Laboratory?
I design electronic circuit boards—schematics and layouts—and also I write code for parts called FPGAs, or Field-Programmable Gate Arrays. I’ll design a circuit board and decide what parts we use, where they go, and how they connect to each other. Then one of the technicians will put it together and give it back to me for testing. I think my favorite part is doing bench testing. Bench testing is often just confirming that things work the way you want them to, but sometimes you see things that you don’t expect. Then you get to explore and go figure out why that happened, and that’s a lot of fun. Bench testing is a lot like scientific research that way.
How did you first get interested in engineering and space science?
Growing up in Las Vegas, I enjoyed physics in high school. Actually, engineering was one of the few things I was pretty sure I did NOT want to do when I started college. My only experience with engineering was building bridges out of matchsticks and that kind of thing. I’m very impressed with people who are good at that, but it’s not really what I am good at. I didn’t discover my interest in electronics until I got to college.
I went to Dartmouth and majored in physics. I knew that I wanted to try doing some hands-on work in a lab. I applied for a job at a place called Lynch Rocket Lab, because who wouldn’t want to work at a rocket lab? I started off doing a lot of soldering, building the electronics, and testing them, not so much designing at that point. I really enjoyed it, and I started taking some electronics classes to learn more about the theory of the stuff that I was starting to do in the lab.
Did you have a mentor who inspired you?
I would say that I’ve been really lucky in that department. Both at Dartmouth and since I’ve come to SSL, I’ve had the chance to work with people who are very generous with their time and with helping me learn the ropes. At Dartmouth, I worked for a professor named Kristina Lynch, who is wonderful. I had no interest in engineering before I met her, but she gave me a job as a freshman and let me do stuff that was really fun and sparked my interest.
She encouraged me to do a senior thesis project. There were around 15 students involved, and we called it the DUCKS mission. We wanted to test the idea of using an array of small sensors to study plasma in the ionosphere. Imagine you only have one sensor, and it’s moving. If you take a measurement here, and then you take one over there and it’s different, you don’t know if that’s because it’s later or because it’s in a different place. But if you have 20 sensors all spread out, and you’re taking measurements in a bunch of places at once, and then you have the sensors cover the same place at different times, you can really separate out changes in space versus changes in time.
It’s expensive to launch satellites and test this in space, and as students we couldn’t do that. But we decided that the flow field of a river is a lot like the flow of a plasma in space. It’s not exactly the same, but kind of the same idea. So we built a very simple electronics package made from inexpensive off-the-shelf parts like Arduinos and very simple sensors, and we made 20 copies. We took our little Arduino sensor packages, packed them up in Tupperware, and floated them all down the Connecticut River. And we tried to use the GPS measurements from all these things to map the flow field of the river.
It was funny—one of the limitations of the commercial, inexpensive hardware that we were using was that the radios had to have line of sight to work, which is tricky on a winding river in a forest in New Hampshire. To solve that problem, we set up our receiver in a canoe so we could follow behind our payloads down the river. I had a bet going with one of the other students about whether we would tip over the canoe and ruin the whole thing, but fortunately we didn’t do that. It worked pretty well!
What are some missions you’ve worked on here?
The lab that I worked in as an undergrad did sounding rocket experiments and other things, and I was hired here straight out of college to work on a sounding rocket as well: the GREECE (Ground-to-Rocket Electrodynamics-Electrons Correlative Experiment) rocket. I really got into the design work when I started working here, and I mostly learned it on the job. I had taken a few electronics classes, which gave me some good background to let me hit the ground running when I came here, but I really learned most of it here.
Since then, I’ve worked on a couple of other sounding rockets as well: TRICE 2 (Twin Rockets to Investigate Cusp Electrodynamics II), which launched in 2018, and VIPER, which will be launching later this year. Sounding rockets are sub-orbital: they just go up and come down. You’re taking data at different altitudes all the way up as the rocket launches and again as it goes back down, but your entire mission usually is less than 30 minutes. GREECE launched from Poker Flat in Alaska, just outside of Fairbanks, and TRICE 2 launched from the Andøya Rocket Range in northern Norway. I had a great time going out to the launch sites!
I spent a lot of time working on Parker Solar Probe, on the SWEAP instrument. I also worked on a Cubesat experiment, which is still in development. It’s called CURIE, which stands for CUbesat Radio Interferometry Experiment. It’s a pair of cubesats, and it’s supposed to measure type 2 and 3 radio bursts from the sun. The idea is that you measure the same signal on two different satellites that are close together but slightly separated, and there’s a little bit of delay in when the signal reaches each one. By measuring the phase difference, you can pinpoint the direction where the signal came from.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I really enjoy travelling and hiking when I get the chance. Last year I spent a week road tripping around Iceland with my brother, which was a blast.
Until recently, I was doing a master’s degree in aerospace engineering through CU Boulder–I was still working full time but also doing that on the side, so that was what I spent most of my time doing. Boulder has a program that can be done completely remotely, so I was able to do it while still working here. I’ve never actually been to Boulder! Many of the distance students in the program are people who are working in the industry already, like me, so I got to talk to people who have interesting jobs and experience that was fun to hear about.
I learned a lot. Part of my reason for wanting to study aerospace engineering as opposed to electrical engineering was that I get to do a lot of electrical engineering in my everyday job. The aerospace engineering courses, like studying orbital dynamics or interplanetary mission design—those are things that I don’t really work on here. But they’re still connected, and knowing more about those fields I think helps me have a better understanding of how the work that I do fits into the broader mission.
Ep 2: Space Sciences Lab team member profiles, an ongoing series.