UCLA students launch project for researching space weather
UCLA aims to be one of the few universities to ever complete such a sophisticated space science mission — designed and built by students — from beginning to end.
Five years ago, a group of UCLA undergrads came together with a common goal — to build a small satellite and launch it into space. In the years since, more than 250 students — many of whom are now UCLA graduate students and alumni — have been the mechanical engineers, software developers, thermal and power testers, electronics technicians, mission planners and fabricators of the twin Electron Losses and Fields Investigation CubeSats, known as ELFIN.
Although UCLA has been building space instruments for NASA and other international space missions for more than 40 years, and members of its faculty have been critical contributors to space science, ELFIN is the first satellite mission built, managed and operated entirely at UCLA. And even more impressive, just about all of it has been done by the students.
Last week, dozens of ELFINers (a nickname earned by those who’ve worked on the satellites), will drive about 150 miles up the California coast from Los Angeles to Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, to watch the product of their effort ascend into orbit.
“Just seeing all the hundreds of hours of work, that not just myself but others too, have put into this project, the many sleepless nights, the stressing out that you’re not going to make a deadline — just seeing it go up there … I’m probably going to cry,” said Jessica Artinger, an astrophysics major and geophysics and planetary science minor who will begin her fifth year this fall.
The two micro-satellites, each weighing about eight pounds and roughly the size of a loaf of bread, will help scientists better understand magnetic storms in near-Earth space. These storms
are a typical form of “space weather” that is induced by solar activity, including flares and violent solar eruptions. Some solar outbursts can impact Earth, generating large amounts of invisible electromagnetic energy that transforms our local space environment.
“Magnetic storms are not just interesting space phenomena. They can energise electrons to high energies that can damage or even destroy orbiting satellites we depend on for GPS, communications and weather monitoring,” said Margaret Kivelson, UCLA professor emeritus of space physics. “They can also enhance space electrical currents which flow onto Earth, and could damage the power grid. Space weather research is also crucial for space tourism and space exploration.”
Currently, scientists’ ability to accurately model and predict space weather is in its infancy, just like meteorology was at the turn of the last century. ELFIN will make headway toward better understanding these phenomena.
ELFIN was slated go up as a secondary payload with the ICESat-2 mission aboard the trusted Delta II, the final and hopefully 100th consecutive successful launch of this type of rocket. The launch was streamed live on NASA TV’s YouTube channel, as well as on UCLA social media (follow #uclaELFIN).
Following the launch, many ELFINers at Vandenberg will come back to the campus command centre to eagerly await the first Bruin transmissions from space, which are expected about 10 hours after blastoff. UCLA students will be directly involved in day-today mission activities and will have privileged access to ELFIN’s data. They will track and command the satellite via a custom-built antenna atop Knudsen Hall and will download data directly to the mission operations centre located in the Earth, planetary and space sciences department. The ELFIN website will have interactive tools so the public can track and listen to the spacecraft as it passes overhead twice a day. The CubeSats are expected to remain in space for two years, after which they will gradually fall out of orbit and burn up in the atmosphere like shooting stars.
Last year, as head of ELFIN’s fabrication team, Artinger led a small team that worked tirelessly in the EPSS prototyping lab using band saws, drill presses and a CNC machine (which is used to carve and smooth metal parts) to meticulously craft tightly toleranced components to meet their completion deadline.
— UCLA News
Ethan Tsai works on the flight model assembly for the CubeSat ELFIN.
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