Student Profile: Sending satellites into space

Two satellites, each about the size of a loaf of bread, orbit Earth once every 98 minutes. The satellites, called FIREBIRD, are CubeSats (standardized cube-shaped satellites) and were launched in early December after a collaborative design and build process between University of New Hampshire and Montana State University.

One of the CubeSats is sending data updates every 60 seconds to MSU’s ground operations station in Cobleigh Hall. The other is silent. Matt Handley is trying to figure out why.

Handley, a junior, has been working with MSU’s Space Science and Engineering Lab (SSEL), the group behind FIREBIRD and other satellite programs, since his freshman year. As a computer engineering student, Handley was involved in pre-launch testing of the satellites and development of ground station systems that communicate with the FIREBIRD CubeSats.

This semester, after the Dec. 6 launch, Handley and around 15 other students have tracked the satellites, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, collecting the data Unit 2 sends and listening for signs of life from Unit 1. “Some people are frustrated, but it’s been a really good experience. Sometimes you have to fail a lot, you have to test a lot … But we’ve learned a lot,” Handley said.

The group continues learning as they troubleshoot the problems affecting Unit 1 and plan the next FIREBIRD satellites, set to launch in fall 2014. “We get a second chance,” Handley said. “We can make them work the next time.”

The satellites are designed collect data from relativistic electron microbursts. “Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) from the sun spew particles at the Earth,” Handley explained. Particles become trapped in Earth’s magnetic field, and “eventually they have to go somewhere.” Sometimes, the electrons precipitate into the earth’s atmosphere in a relativistic electron microburst, a phenomenon Handley compares to a rainstorm.

CME’s and other space weather phenomenon like solar flares have disrupted satellites and GPS systems in the past. “By understanding how the electrons interact with Earth’s magnetic field, [using FIREBIRD’s data], we can better understand the Earth-Sun relationship,” Handley said.

The data FIREBIRD collects excites Handley, who enjoys applying his interests to tangible projects. “By the time I was ten or eleven, I’d taken apart all the computers in my house,” he recounts. Perhaps more impressively, he put the computers back together. “The hardware is more interesting because it’s working with your hands,” Handley said.

Upon coming to MSU three years ago, Handley discovered SSEL, and started working on the Hiscock Radiation Belt Explorer (HRBE, pronounced “Herbie”) an MSU satellite launched in 2011. Since then, he’s worked on other missions and was awarded an Undergraduate Scholars Program grant to organize, process and interpret data sent from HRBE.

“If I’m not in class, I’m usually at the lab,” Handley said. He spends his time developing new systems for FIREBIRD satellites and tracking the satellites currently in orbit. Handley’s work at the lab is essentially a part-time job, paid for by work-study grants.

“After I started working on the hardware, and [learned about] the work that goes into putting the satellites in space, it seemed like something I enjoyed doing. And it seemed like something I’d enjoy getting paid to do,” Handley said, thinking about the future.