A lifetime goal accomplished: astroian, the NASA intern…

Hello all, first off I cannot even tell you how many questions, comments, and conversations I had with people in the past few weeks about Planetary Resources. Ever since I put my “A not so minor mining endeavor…” post, I’ve talked to dozens of people with a myriad reactions about the prospect of mining asteroids. Many people think it’s crazy and extraneous and will probably never happen, many think that it’s exciting and inspirational and awe-inspiring, and still others had no idea what I was talking about. But in any case, I did email Planetary Resources to get on their mailing list and let them know that I might be interested in a job down the line; I didn’t get a personal response, but in one of their recent mailings thanking their supporters, they mentioned that that since their press release on April 24th, they’re received nearly 2,000 resumes from interested potential employees! Talk about room for growth.

Moving on from that, I need to let you all know about something very exciting going on with me. As you devout followers may remember, last year I posted about getting a fellowship from NASA to help fund my graduate research. Well now as part of that fellowship I’m spending two months down at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, MD! Yes that’s right I am currently sitting at my very own desk, in my very own office (for now), with my very own NASA ID badge AT NASA! If only 10-year-old Space Camp astroian could see me now!

It’s official! I work for NASA and I’ve got the ID badge to prove it!

I got down here to Goddard last Tuesday and immediately I was impressed by the incredible size of the center’s “campus”. With nearly 13,000 employees at this single center (one of NASA’s eleven around the country), the complex has a more the feel of a college campus than a government agency. Even more mind-boggling than that is that the of the over 30 buildings that make up this campus, only TWO house all of the scientists. Yes, that’s right, of the over 13,000 employees, all of the scientists are housed in only two mere buildings. It really makes me wonder what they could possibly be doing in all those other buildings, but it’s not hard to imagine: there’s at least one building dedicated to new technology development and countless others to spacecraft construction and such. Still in any case, it’s crazy to wrap your head around.

As far as the research I’m doing is concerned, it’s a lot of writing computer code and waiting. This seems to be a large portion of most scientific investigation…oh and writing proposals so you can get money to actually pay for the research you want to do. Luckily I’ve been able to avoid doing a whole lot of that…for now. In any case, what I’m working on now analyzing and sorting calibration and test data from the Fast Plasma Investigation (FPI) instruments that will be on the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, built here at Goddard and slated to launch in 2014.

A part of the FPI, the Dual Electron Spectrometer (DES) being built at GSFC. Credit: NASA/Karen C. Fox

The very basic idea of the Fast Plasma Investigation is that scientists want to look at “fast”, or highly energetic, particles that exist in the space around Earth. So everyone remembers from elementary school that there are 3 states of matter: gas, liquid, and solid. Well technically there’s a fourth: plasma. A plasma is a gas that’s so hot or energetic that the  atoms or molecules in it have been ionized (either completely or partially), meaning that negatively charged electrons have been separated from the positively charged ions. Most of the matter in the universe is actually in the form of plasma, so its abundance warrants some special consideration as a state of matter as well as the intricacies of how it’s different from a normal gas (aside from being electrically charged, plasmas can also generally be treated by as a fluid– using hydrodynamics).  So the FPI instruments are made up of two kinds of spectrometers–instruments that use electric fields to bend the path of a charged particle and determine its energy– one set for ions and one for electrons.

The Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission will fly a constellation of four of these octagonal spacecraft for better temporal and spatial resolution. The FPI instruments, the DES and DIS, are seen in purple and yellow on the X and Y axes. Credit: NASA

The MMS mission (which actually has a large team at UNH, headed by Physics professor Roy Torbert) will fly a constellation of four identical octagonal spacecraft (depicted above) in orbit. Having four spacecraft working in unison helps scientists to get a better understanding of how a region in space behaves. Think about it like this: let’s say you’re sitting in a boat on the ocean and a wave passes under you. You take a measurement of how much your boat moved (i.e. the energy of the wave) and at what time it occurred. Well that might be all well and good, but that doesn’t really help you say anything scientifically profound about the ocean, just that a wave with this strength happened at this location at this time. However, if you had four boats 500 feet from each other and each recorded the same data, then you could correlate whether all the events happened at the same time with the same energy or if the wave was travelling, increasing or decreasing in energy, or if it was just a abnormality that only occurred in one location and wasn’t indicative of a larger-scale event. Any time you can get more data points, the better off and more sound your science will be. So the FPI instrument– which is made of of 32 different instruments (4 ion and 4 electron on each of the four spacecraft)– will collect a full sky map of data at the rate of 30 times per second, 100 times faster than any previous similar instrument), as it helps MMS to investigate a strange natural phenomenon known as magnetic reconnection.

What is magnetic reconnection and why should we care about it? Well magnetic reconnection is the leading theory for how energetic particles escape from the Sun in solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and how those energetic particles get into the Earth’s magnetic field and cause aurora. So it has big implications for us Earth-dwellers, but although the theory is highly debated among scientists, it’s never been observed. MMS is hoping to do just that.

So what’s my part in all this? Like I said, it’s a lot of computer work. So about half of the actual instruments have been built and they are now being tested 24/7. As you can imagine running hundreds of tests on each instrument can generate a lot of data; data that needs to be sorted, analyzed, explained, and then communicated to the “consumer” (i.e. the team of scientists and engineers who designed it– who oddly enough aren’t always the same people who actually build the instrument). That’s where I come in, I’ve been writing computer code to help sort, analyze, and plot this test data so that it can be delivered as part of the team’s update on its progress and the instruments’ performance so far. So that’s what I’ve been doing: writing a lot of computer code and working at NASA. But hey, I’m still working at NASA–even if it’s just for a few months– and that is a huge life goal accomplished. Who knows where I might go next…

Next time I need to remember the spacesuit…

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2 Responses to A lifetime goal accomplished: astroian, the NASA intern…

  1. AdamLL says:

    Dude, this NASA internship in Maryland sounds amazing! Also, my mind was blown a little bit with plasma being a 4th state of matter.

  2. valentinekid says:

    Congratulations on the internship…inch by inch, step by step….
    I am a pretty new follower so the comments/thoughts are obviously not in a correct chronology….

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