Small but Mighty: The Cubse Sat
Last week I received notification that a proposal we submitted to NASA was funded. We were notified through email: Dear Dr. Hynes, I am pleased to inform you that your proposal, Virtual Telescope for X-ray Observations, was selected for funding in the amount of $749,525. The evaluation was conducted through a combined online peer review process and an internal NASA panel review process according to the criteria described in the solicitation. The list of proposals selected for funding is available at http://nspires.nasaprs.com.
Before I started working at NMSU I never got an email like this. When I had my business I wrote proposals for customers. I explained the services we were offering, estimated the time and cost for delivery. Usually I would deliver the proposal, the customer and I would talk, and I’d get my answer face to face.
When the federal government pays for research, it may or may not get what the researcher proposed. Now before this ruins your morning, research is not a fee for service transaction. Researchers don’t know exactly what they are going to find. Research is discovery. If you know what you are going to find, it’s not research. Researchers take years to get these size awards. They must convince funding agencies they know how to run research programs.
Steven Stochaji is the researcher who won this award, I am the manager for the project, Steve is doing the work developing two 6U Cubesats. Steve and I met years ago, and have run many races in the past. He is a particle astrophysicist, teaches and does research in the College of Engineering. He studies particles like galactic X-rays. He was a graduate student working under Bob Golden in the Particle Astrophysics Lab or PAL when we met.
It was in this lab where I first observed how space hardware was built, tested and deployed in the field. It seemed to me the people in PAL were always busy. They did not walk, they sort of ran. There was a sense of urgency about Bob Golden. Everyone around him moved quickly and with purpose. There was not chatting, no coffee and donuts. Yet everyone seemed to be enjoying their work.
Annually, Dr. Golden would mount a field campaign or mission. His multinational team would converge on Las Cruces, prepare and insert his large magnetic spectrometer into the gondola. A magnetic spectrometer – an instrument to measure electromagnetic particles. Bob was measuring cosmic ray antiprotons – don’t’ worry about this- the point is he knew the particle he wanted to measure. He did not know whether he could find the particle, that was the research part of the mission.
The whole team would load the semi-trailer and caravan to Fort Sumner for the summer launch season. The gondola was attached to a high balloon that would go up 100,000 feet or more, catch the atmospheric winds and stay aloft for days or weeks. During the time aloft, the instruments gather and analyze particles in the electromagnetic spectrum. There is visible energy we see – light. Then at the low end of the spectrum, we cannot see particles like microwaves and X-rays. We know these particles exist because we see they effects of their existence – microwaved hot soup and medical X-rays. Dr. Golden was looking for Primordial Antimatter. The early particles, remnants of the big bang.
Discovering an anti-proton in cosmic rays in those days with the equipment they had is almost hilarious to think about now. Bob knew, he could not actually find the particle, had to prove it existed by measuring what happens around the particle. The only way the instruments could detect an anti-proton was to look at the behavior of particles they could observe with the instruments and theorize the explanation for the behavior. This discovery led to the development of superconducting magnets that allow us to investigate cosmic radiation today.
Bob died suddenly in 1995. Steve will now get a chance to begin to develop two small satellites that will fly in formation to create a space based telescope to measure x-rays from the sun and other sources outside our galaxy. The telescope elements (lens and camera) will be separately located on two small satellites, flying in precision formation.
Why are working to develop our capability in New Mexico to do this type of research? We have a great deal of expertise we have invested in the area of instrument development and the formation flying of satellites. We want to advance our state’s capabilities where New Mexico to compete for significant roles in larger NASA missions. This project is scoped in size to represent activities that can be completed within 3 years. This is the first step on a long journey to develop this space base telescope. First step is to develop the instrument to go into the small satellites. Even this has never been done before. Bob Golden’s instrument was almost the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. The instruments Steve will develop could be put into a piece of carryon luggage and still have enough room for his running shoes.