UCLA stu­dents launch project for re­search­ing space weather

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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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