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On November 20, 2017, one of NASA’s small satellites — EcAMSat — deployed into orbit from the International Space Station (ISS). Hundreds of miles below, the mission control center at the Robotic Systems Laboratory (RSL) in Santa Clara University was a hub of activity. Just a few hours past midnight on November 21, mission control operators were gearing up to establish contact with the satellite, signaling its successful launch into orbit.
“You’re focused on what you’re doing but you are also listening to other operators. So, when one of the operators said that contact was achieved for the first time, we all wanted to celebrate but we had to keep focusing on what we were doing as well,” recalls Kayleigh Dobson, one of the three operators. “It was one of the coolest, most surreal, intense experiences that I think any 19 or 20-year-old could have.” Dobson, who graduated with a B.S. in mechanical engineering this summer, was a junior at the time.
The professional satellite missions run by RSL are unusual when compared to their academic counterparts. The lab's operational staff consists almost entirely of students — from freshmen to graduate students.
Established in 1999, the lab is the brainchild of Christopher Kitts, who also serves as its director. The lab also focuses on innovations in robotics and automation, in addition to satellite operations.
Kitts has long been in the world of satellite operations. He was a mission controller for satellites in the U.S. Air Force. He co-founded and served as the graduate student director of a small satellite lab at Stanford. At Santa Clara University, he began building small satellites and developing mission control capabilities, in addition to researching mission control technology. Many of the lab’s projects and mission control operations are in service of clients and collaborators from the government, academia and industry. These include NASA (Ames and Marshall), Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and Lockheed Martin.
Since 2006, RSL has supported 13 completed NASA missions. “A biology group at [NASA] Ames had been doing experiments on the [International] Space Station but wanted to start doing them using free-flying satellites. They didn’t have much money to do this and so they were interested in a ‘small satellite’ approach that we had been using in the university community for a decade or so,” Kitts explains. Given the work that was being done at RSL, Kitts’ experience in satellite operations and having worked at NASA Ames’ computational sciences division, “it was a very natural fit for us to provide that function for the NASA team with students at Santa Clara [University],” he says.
The students undergo rigorous training and certification to meet strict professional standards.
“There was a very rigid structure of making sure we can follow these NASA approved procedures really well; under pressure, when we are tired, when something is not going well,” Dobson says. “’ Cause a lot of those [satellite] passes were at two or three in the morning, we needed to know them very well and we needed to be comfortable with them.” Contact with a satellite might only occur two or three times a day and last only three to 10 minutes, according to Kitts.
Santa Clara University also offers a one-credit satellite operations course at the undergraduate and graduate level. Students become familiar with the technology and processes required to make contact with a satellite. They also plan how each contact should proceed and learn how to troubleshoot. At the end of the course, students have the opportunity to make contact with an operational satellite such as EcAMSat. In addition, the course in part satisfies the training and certification requirements for participating in NASA missions.
Many students join RSL after completing the course and work for credit or as paid interns. Others, like Dobson, start by volunteering their time and familiarizing themselves with the projects and technology. Ultimately, Dobson was offered a summer internship and a place on the EcAMSat mission operations team. “If you have the dedication and commitment you are given a decent amount of free range to see what projects are interesting to you,” she says. “There’s a lot of opportunities to explore.”
Kitts’ main vision for RSL was to develop systems and technologies with real-world applications. Many of NASA’s missions with RSL aim to understand the impact of space travel on human biology and health in an innovative, low cost way. Each of these small satellites is effectively a tiny laboratory that can run automated experiments (for example, the EcAMSat mission examines antibiotic resistance by studying how E.coli bacteria respond to antibiotics while in space).
“Prior to a launch, we often spend a year or two working with the NASA team to test their satellite and to make sure it works with our equipment,” says Kitts. “The students do most of this testing. [T]hey help create the procedures for running experiments, they write special software to analyze the satellites and process its experimental data, etc.” As a part of their many mission control tasks, students send commands to the satellite, receive data and according to Kitts, “calibrate, analyze, plot or tabulate experimental data” from the satellite for NASA.
Kitts also wanted to work across multiple domains: land, sea, air and space. “My hope was that this would create an incredibly authentic learning experience for students,” Kitts says. “And that it would provide many opportunities for students to do both engineering design and engineering research.”
“It really looks like there are a bunch of engineers at work here. There’s wires everywhere. You’ve got robots lining the shelves, there’s a desk full of drones. There are big old robotic arms sitting on tables and students are testing all these things,” says Grant Mishler, a mechanical engineering graduate student. “So you get this incredible sense that there is a lot of stuff being done here and that really excited me when I first came in.”
Mishler started in the lab in his junior year as an undergraduate. Currently, he is working on building a new positioner mechanism for some of the lab’s antennas. Misher’s design would enable the antennas to move faster, point more accurately to a satellite’s position and get more data each time a satellite passes overhead.
RSL runs a distributed satellite control network. They have antennas located on-site and all across the country. They also have multiple control centers to receive the information gathered from a satellite. This includes a mobile mission control center — a 28-foot mobile trailer, with antennas and consoles that can be towed to where needed. All these facilities are connected via the internet and allow for more frequent communication with the satellite, according to Kitts.
The lab can also set up temporary mission control centers in remote locations. The team has a “deployable ground station,” which includes a set of antennas and can be shipped to where needed. Paul Mahacek, a former graduate student, was responsible for setting up stations in El Salvador and Kwajalein Atoll, in the Marshall Islands. The latter location posed very specific logistical challenges. “The nearest hardware store [felt like] half a planet away and it could take days or weeks get deliveries,” says Mahacek. “We had to account for any tools or replacement hardware that we could possibly need.”
RS L’s emphasis on incorporating real-world experiences to engineering education — in robotics, automation and satellite operations — was recognized by the National Academy of Engineering in 2012. Indeed, the opportunity for a profoundly practical education is exactly what draws students to RSL, despite having to juggle busy academic schedules with the demands of the lab, or the odd hours of satellite passes and despite having to master new and sometimes difficult areas of computing and engineering.
“What drew me to this lab is that they’re all real projects with real customers,” says Kayleigh Dobson. “It’s real engineering and it’s not just some project that you do to get a grade.”
Kitts, Christopher and Rasay, Mike. “A university-based distributed satellite mission control network for operating professional space missions.” Acta Astronautica 120 (2016): 229-238