Features & Columns

Recovering The Satellites

Some undergrads live to party, but at Santa Clara University they partner with NASA
Santa Clara University undergrads, some as young as 18, helped collect data from a NASA satellite studying E. coli bacteria.

As a professional photographer, Mike Rasay has shot three NBA Finals, but he prefers the excitement of his day job at Santa Clara University, where he's the head of day-to-day operations for the school's satellite program. Long seen as the little sister to Stanford University, SCU's satellite program owns the impressive distinction of being the only university to trust undergraduate students as operators of NASA missions. Now working on his PhD, Rasay started in this lab as an undergraduate and said he still "gets more excited" while controlling objects in orbit than taking shots of Steph Curry.

"There's a bunch of people who have worked an NBA Finals before," Rasay explains. "There are a very select number of people who have operated a NASA spacecraft."

In their previous mission, SCU students and staff acted as beta-testers and mission operators for a satellite that was ejected from the International Space Station and sent into low orbit. Within the machine, an experiment tested E. coli bacteria's ability to survive the higher radiation and lower gravity of space so as to learn more about the fundamentals of biology on Earth and beyond.

The satellite was dubbed "EcAMSat," short for "E. coli AntiMicrobial Satellite." And over the course of several months, the Santa Clara students succeeded in retrieving all the data they needed from the satellite. Now it's up to scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center to make something of the information.

Head of the Robotic Systems Lab, Dr. Chris Kitts says this is the 12th successful mission that SCU has done in partnership with Ames. After working for the Air Force, then Ames, Kitts now oversees a diverse laboratory and started working with NASA about 15 years ago as their research-focused facility needed help crafting an affordable satellite to house their experiments.

A non-profit backed by educational grants and populated with an eager workforce, SCU became an ideal, if at first unconventional, partner. Over their 12 successful missions, SCU's undergraduate and graduate students have not only beta-tested missions and operated them, but also worked on everything from the design of satellites, to communication software, to the processing and analyzing of data.

The reasons against making undergraduates mission operators are obvious: They're young and inexperienced, so they could make a mistake that would ruin a mission in search of valuable data that took years to develop. But Kitts and Rasay have developed a system that simultaneously minimizes risk while providing students with the valuable experience they need to go on to industry-related jobs at companies like SpaceX.

Not to mention it helps out with NASA Ames' bottom line.

Grant Mishler, who just finished up his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at SCU and worked on E. coli mission, says he thinks its more than a fair trade. "I think that's something that we kind of pride ourselves on," Mishler says, referring to the fact that undergrads and grad students run the day to day operations—pulling data down from the satellites and performing basic troubleshooting.

"We can do it, and we will do it for less," he continues. "I would say that we offer NASA a competitive deal."

In late February, Kitts, Rasay and satellite lead for the E. coli mission, Leland Taylor, a graduate student, showed off the command center, featuring big screens that tracked the progress of their satellite, which relies on gravity, not rocket thrusters, to circle the planet. In this room on the second floor of a nondescript office building, this team can't help but geek out a bit when they talk to robots floating in space.

"When you watch the undergrads, who are all kind of space nerds, and they actually get to talk to something in space for the first time, they're jumping up and down." Taylor says. "I still jump up and down."

For his part, Mishler says his first time working on the EcAMSat console was a thrill.

"It was probably about 2am, I'd say," Mishler remembers. "I was fresh back from Thanksgiving, a little bit sleepy, but I was super excited."

Mishler and the rest of his fellow undergrads, some as young as 18, did a lot of waiting while working in the satellite lab—especially in the beginning when they were still trying to dial in the tiny craft's movements. The EcAMSat is about as big as a shoebox and it was launched from the International Space Station at about the same time as a few other satellites, so one of the first things the Santa Clara team needed to do was get fix on its exact location in the sky.

That meant pointing satellite dishes in the direction of where they believed the EcAMSat would pass overhead and then hoping to grab its signal in a short window of time—about 10 minutes.

"So I'm basically looking at a command line and seeing the commands go through," Mishler says of his first early morning session on the EcAMSat desk. "Then all of a sudden you get this huge burst of data on your screen. It's super exciting to see that. Now we're in full-on mission mode. It's time to grab as much data as we can."

The E. coli AntiMicrobial Satellite (EcAMSat) investigated space microgravity effects on the antibiotic resistance of E. coli.

Rasay started working with Kitts nearly 20 years ago as an undergraduate. He left for a few years, then returned to SCU to finish his master's and start a PhD. Combined with Kitts' ample experience operating spacecraft, the duo acts as a "safety net" for the students that run the bulk of the mission.

"Had we dropped the ball at any point we would have been sacked, and rightly so," Kitts says. "But we have procedures, there's a checklist, everybody has a defined role. [Students] learn how to act in an operational sense. And once we did it enough, and we demonstrated our capability, we realized we were providing professional services."

Although NASA is known for its rockets, at a more research-focused institute like Ames, scientists occasionally lack the budget to finance a satellite that will take their experiment up into space. As Mishner observed, SCU can offer its services more cheaply than a corporation like Lockheed Martin on account of the university's non-profit status and pool of cheap student labor. But there are other tricks that Kitts has deployed to keep costs down.

To build his satellites on a budget, Kitts says he's taken some guidance from the "rabid" HAM radio community that pioneered methods in satellite design with the mentality of "accepting high risk, but being ultra-low-cost and kind of having fun with it."

Some innovations include using a measuring tape as an antenna, using magnets to orient a spacecraft and filling the empty space around a vessel's internal mechanisms with anchoring foam, rather than meticulously mounting everything.

Kitts says the very first spacecraft SCU was contracted to make contained a HAM radio beacon as a backup data transmitter should the primary radio fail. Both ended up working, but Kitts and Rasay decided to keep the HAM radio transmitter on board for every subsequent mission. The transmitter now mostly functions to supply the team with a status report on roughly 10 data points for the satellite.

"With 10 different data points on a satellite, I got a pretty good idea if all hell's broken loose or if things are looking okay," Kitts says.

This data is accessible to everybody with the proper equipment, and SCU relies upon partners across the country, from universities to dudes in their garage, to help snag the data when the satellite passes overhead.

Since the satellite doesn't have thrusters, Kitts explains that students rely on passive techniques for adjusting the craft—such as using magnets that orient the spacecraft to correspond to the Earth's magnetic poles. As a result, the satellite isn't always in an optimal position to send and receive information. But with the help of their partners, SCU's mission operators can mitigate their risks and ensure they're doing the right thing. "If it comes overhead, and we're talking to the spacecraft, the contact opportunity is really only on the order of minutes," Rasay says. "So you can't look at a piece of data and go, 'Holy crap, I gotta do something,' and then figure out a plan to do it. You really do need to think out all the scenarios because if you send a command that's going to then kill the spacecraft, you've got a brick."

As a result of the passive techniques, the mission operators are at the mercy of physics. The shifts come in six- to 12-hour increments that are not beholden to the Pacific Time Zone. As a result, "we're up a lot of late hours," says Taylor, the satellite lead.

Here they confess the mission command center is mildly misleading. The big screen TVs are for visiting students or journalists who have come to expect these spaces to look a certain way—large digital maps tracking satellites, live feeds of antennae and the like. In reality, the whole mission can be run off a laptop, eliminating the need to get out of bed at 3am. In fact, the original software for all of these missions was made partly by Rasay, back before controlling robots via the internet was commonplace.

Mishler says he took a few things away from the Spartan equipment that he and his labmates used to control a NASA satellite.

"You can have a lot of technology that does a lot of fancy things, but at the end of the day it's important that you know what's going on at that high level," Mishler says, referencing the crew of Apollo 13, who had to use some pretty basic technology—like duct tape—to fix their malfunctioning spacecraft. "HAM radio is a very tried and true communications platform. It's definitely not as fancy of some of the other ways of communicating, but the simplicity and ruggedness of HAM radio allows you to keep getting information about the satellite."

The most recent mission required the students to download the information about the E. coli's reaction to the environment in space—data that had never been collected before. Led by Stanford's A.C. Matin, the mission's principal investigator, the research will provide insights to improve astronaut health while expanding knowledge regarding the possibilities of life in the universe.

"There are lots of things on the biology side of things that we don't really understand," Rasay says with a bit of humility. "But the notion of what they're trying to explore is cool."

Because of Rasay and Kitts' support, these students gather the valuable practical skills that are often unattainable in the classroom—learning the basic etiquette of how to work in a professional environment, taking charge of their situation without waiting for a professor's go-ahead and developing the confidence to repeat this style of work in the future.

An undergraduate student named Grant had been working on a senior project that would attach a weight to the end of a tape measure to give an antenna extra directionality.

But to work at this level is a rare treat for students, who get a taste of the bigtime in a lab stocked with loads of multidisciplinary experts to bounce problems off of. Beyond just building valuable experience for future jobs, communicating with something in space is a pretty neat perk that they can't get anywhere else.

For Rasay and Kitts, the arrangement satisfies their academic and professional desires, since they're able to advance research, teach novice engineers the ropes and pursue projects on par with anyone else in the field.

"Part of it is, we understand that this is an extra thing that will distinguish our graduates," Kitts says. "And part of it is, we enjoy it. My goodness, you see the kind of stuff we're doing. I'd get so bored if we weren't doing this."