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Illinois researchers participate in developing Small Explorer concept for NASA


Tom Moone, ECE Illinois

Gary R Swenson
Gary R Swenson

In May, NASA made the first round of selections for its Small Explorer (SMEX) Program, choosing six projects for further development before narrowing down to the final two projects that will be launched in 2012.

ECE Professor Gary R Swenson, ECE Assistant Professor Jonathan J Makela, and ECE Associate Professor Farzad Kamalabadi are part of a team that made it through this first stage. The project they are participating in is called the Neutral Ion Coupling Explorer (NICE).

NICE, which is led by principal investigator Stephen Mende of the University of California, Berkeley, will use a suite of remote sensing and other instruments to discover how winds and the composition of the upper atmosphere drive the electrical fields and chemical reactions that control the Earth's ionosphere.

Jonathan J Makela
Jonathan J Makela

According to a NASA press release, the intent of the SMEX program is to "study the far reaches of the universe, including the Earth's thermosphere and ionosphere, the sun, black holes, the first stars, and Earthlike planets around nearby stars."

At this stage, teams from the six selected projects will prepare detailed information on the instrument design as well as cost analysis of their design. These will be submitted to NASA by December 16. NASA will then make site visits to all the selected teams, and make a final selection in May 2009of two projects that will move forward to launch.

Given that NASA’s science programs in this area have been dwindling in this area for several years, said Swenson, "to be part of the precious few is a special reward for us."

Farzad Kamalabadi
Farzad Kamalabadi

There are a number of science questions that NICE will examine, including: How do the large scale atmospheric dynamics control the Earth’s ionosphere? What causes the day-to-day variability in the Earth’s ionosphere? And what causes the ionosphere plasma enhancement during storms?

"These are all areas where we have begun to make progress in recent years," said Makela, "but we still lack a global dataset of the driving factors that are at play. The NICE satellite would provide the necessary information to answer these questions"

For Swenson, this is an exciting time during the life of this project. "In this phase we do all the innovating and putting concepts together," he said, "whereas, once we’re accepted to build our instrumentation, it’s a lot of people overseeing our implementation."

Part of the challenge of the project is developing instrumentation that NASA will recognize as being cost effective. One way to be cost effective is to use instrumentation that has some heritage with NASA or that is very similar to instruments that have been used successfully in the past. "We’re very careful as we go through these next steps to put an instrument together that’s aggressively going after some new science, but at the same time, implement recent technologies where risk is minimized," said Swenson.

There will be four instruments on the proposed payload. In addition to the one developed by the group at Illinois, another will come from the University of Texas, Dallas, and two from the University of California, Berkeley. "Our responsibility is the main instrument, a Fabry Perot Interferometer which remotely measures wind and temperature between 90 km and 300 km in the upper atmosphere," said Swenson. "The major challenge is the measurement of wind velocities to an uncertainty of one meter per second from a platform moving at eight kilometers per second." Simulations will ensure that the signal and signal-to-noise ratio are sufficient with the chosen design to accomplish that goal.

The group is subcontracting with Michigan Aerospace Corporation in Ann Arbor for the mechanical design. Lockheed in Palo Alto, California, will provide the detectors. "A lot of the heritage for this instrument is from a similar optical design flown on Dynamic Explorer, a mission flown in the 1980’s," said Swenson.

Once the finalist projects are selected in May 2009, construction will need to begin in June. It is an aggressive, accelerated program, and it needs to be, if it is to meet the planned 2012 launch date.