MSU satellite to aid in global research

Matt Voll and Ehson Mosleh speak in the SSEL fabrication lab.
Matt Voll takes notes as he inspects equipment.

Connected to an Atlas-V rocket, FIREBIRD will propel through the sky on Oct. 1, 2013. This satellite, produced by MSU students and faculty in collaboration with several national programs, is funded by the National Science Foundation and will be launched by the United States Department of Defense and NASA as part of the global research on space weather.

MSU researchers hope this satellite will answer several elusive questions concerning relativistic electron microbursts in space, thus revealing valuable information regarding space weather.

Space weather affects many aspects of life on Earth. It can disrupt signals coming from Global Positioning Systems (GPS), spacecrafts and long-distance radio due to changes in the radiation belts surrounding the Earth. Also, changes in space weather can affect radiation and ground currents, which affect airplanes.

The FIREBIRD (Focused Investigation of Relativistic Electron Burst, Intensity, Range and Dynamics) satellite is currently under construction, and MSU is collaborating with several other national programs to complete the project. The University of New Hampshire, Los Alamos National Labs and The Aerospace Corporation are all working with MSU to construct the satellite, which is the fourth MSU has built.

The first two satellites were lost due to launch vehicle failures; however, the third satellite, originally called Explorer-1[PRIME] CubeSat and renamed Hiscock Radiation Belt Explorer (HRBE), “is currently still fully operational after one full year,” said Ehson Mosleh, a research engineer in the MSU physics department.

Mosleh became involved with the MSU Space Science and Engineering Laboratory (SSEL) when work first began on HRBE. He wrote the software that controls, sends and receives information while the satellite is in orbit, and has worked as a systems engineer and program manager for six years at the SSEL.

Larry Springer, the SSEL senior research engineer, provides management and engineering oversight to the laboratory’s programs. Springer is also acting as the director of SSEL while the actual director, Dave Klumpar, fulfills a two-year assignment at NASA.

FIREBIRD is more advanced than the initial satellite, HRBE. With its more complex systems and detectors, the SSEL hopes it can answer three important questions about relativistic electron microbursts: What is the spatial scale size of an individual microburst, what is the energy dependence of an individual microburst, and how much total electron loss from the radiation belts do microbursts produce globally?

The FIREBIRD satellite, set to launch in October, 2013.

The data concerning microbursts will be collected as the HRBE and FIREBIRD pass through the Van Allen radiation belts, a layer of energetically charged particles that surround Earth. Answering these questions will help researchers understand space weather, and will not only aid in the development of space weather models of Earth’s radiation belts, but will also help researchers better understand the Sun-Earth connection.

The SSEL hires both undergraduate and graduate students to conduct research and work on satellite projects. Students currently work in the lab throughout the week, and after building the satellite, they will conduct tests prior to its launch. These students apply their studies in a multi-disciplinary environment in order to build real engineering systems, Mosleh explained.

“MSU students gain valuable and unique experience that gives them a unique edge in future research and career opportunities,” he added.