Cornell partners with JPL

"Metamorphosis" sculpture at JPL

“Metamorphosis” sculpture at JPL

Tuesday, October 28, 2014, La Canada Flintridge, Calif.–More than 70 Cornell alumni visited the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in late October for a tour of the leading U.S. center for robotic space exploration. Organized by the Cornell Office of Alumni Affairs, the event highlighted JPL’s ongoing space science achievements, which Cornell researchers have been deeply involved in. Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professor Mason Peck emceed the evening program and provided an update on the school’s last decade of spacecraft engineering projects.

"Out-of-This-World Records! Driving Distances on Mars and the Moon."

“Out-of-This-World Records! Driving Distances on Mars and the Moon.” Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After a reception, Cornell guests gathered to hear opening remarks by JPL Director Charles Elachi. The lab director cited the year’s milestones in space exploration.

In January, for example, the Mars Opportunity rover team celebrated the hardy robotic explorer’s 10th year on the Martian surface. In July, Opportunity set an off-Earth driving record, when it logged its 25th mile, surpassing the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 2 moon rover’s mileage record set in 1973. Steven Squyres, Cornell’s James A. Weeks Professor of Physical Sciences and Opportunity’s scientific principal investigator, noted that Opportunity’s achievements were one component of a “second golden age” of solar system exploration.

In March, JPL’s Cassini spacecraft marked a significant milestone of its own: its 100th flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan. The mission has mapped Titan’s methane lakes and seas. Cornell astronomer Jonathan Lunine (David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences), one of the Cassini interdisciplinary scientists, studies Titan’s exotic chemistry to see whether life could have evolved on the frozen but Earth-like body.

During the Cornell alumni event, Elachi also outlined JPL’s recently formalized strategic research partnership with Cornell. Last November, the university became an official member of JPL’s Strategic University Research Partnership (SURP) program, when Cornell President David Skorton and Director Elachi signed a memorandum of understanding. SURP provides an avenue for university researchers to collaborate with JPL staff on basic and applied research in 14 science and technology areas. The program aims to enhance the strategic science and technology goals of both JPL and the universities with which it partners.

Through SURP, both undergraduate and graduate students at partner universities can pursue summer internships. JPL also funds graduate research in its core areas. This level of direct student engagement and support provides the NASA center with access to cutting-edge research and helps JPL nurture potential future employees, many of them Cornell engineering alumni.

Peck pointed out that Cornell engineering students are well prepared for the advanced technology and mission design work at JPL. He traced the growing emphasis on advanced space technology at Cornell in recent years. In just the last decade, faculty and students have collaborated on innovative spacecraft designs, novel propulsion systems and sophisticated GPS tracking analyses. Student teams have designed and built small satellites that have won launch slots. The smallest–the crowd-funded femtosatellite mission known as KickSat–flew aboard SpaceX’s Dragon cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station. Peck also described a liquid water propulsion system and a moon mission, two projects currently under development by Cornell engineering students.


Aaron Stehura

Aaron Stehura

Laura Jones

Laura Jones

Mike Meacham

Mike Meacham

Peck then moderated a panel of Cornell alumni who currently work at JPL, including Laura Jones  (Ph.D. ’12), Aaron Stehura (B.S. ’09, M.Eng. ’10), and  Mike Meacham (B.S. ’04, M.Eng. ’05). The three engineering grads discussed how their classes, research and student team projects at Cornell have contributed to their success at JPL. Aaron’s work on Cornell’s Violet nanosatellite–a 50 kg spacecraft that will demonstrate high-speed maneuvers–provided him a background in systems thinking that has proven useful at JPL.  Jones credited the hands-on engineering lab experiences and the close connection to the space sciences. While a Ph.D student at Cornell, Jones tested her research on NASA’s microgravity aircraft. She worked on space technology projects involving formation flight and has since applied her research to solving spacecraft engineering problems.

Peck, whose Space Systems Design Studio will be collaborating with Jones as principal investigator through a SURP grant, concluded that “it’s an exciting time to collaborate with JPL. Cornell emphasizes world-changing research, and Engineering’s advanced technology research has the potential to do just that in support of NASA’s future missions.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden discusses paradigm shift in space exploration

Wednesday, October 22, 2014, Ithaca, N.Y.–Major General Charles F. Bolden Jr. is surprisingly down to earth for an astronaut who piloted the space shuttle and logged more than 680 hours in space. After delivering the 2014 William R. Sears Distinguished Lecture, “NASA’s Roadmap to Tomorrow’s Missions,” to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 250 at Cornell University, the NASA administrator was asked to identify the biggest challenge facing the space agency over the next decade. “Congress,” he quipped.

During congressional testimony to justify the agency’s budget for space exploration, Bolden explained, he routinely answers that NASA “doesn’t spend a dime in space.” The NASA budget, which represents less than half of one percent of federal outlays, is spent here on Earth. The agency funds astronomy, climate, medicine and technology research at NASA centers, universities and private companies.

Bolden cited recent examples of NASA-funded scientific discoveries and technological innovations: earth and atmospheric observations that map climate change, carbon nanotube biocapsules that diagnose and treat illnesses, and Iron Man-like exoskeletons that hone strength and flexibility. These breakthroughs in turn reap direct social and economic benefits for the United States and the world. “What is the value of a wounded warrior being able to walk again with the help of an exoskeleton?” Bolden asked. You cannot put a monetary value on such transformative technological transfer, he argued.

Bolden highlighted Cornell’s deep contributions to the space program, dating to the 1950s, when astronomy professor Carl Sagan advised NASA’s pioneering space missions. Mae Jemison, M.D. ’81, blazed trails as the first woman of color in space. James A. Weeks Professor of Physical Sciences Steve Squyres’ lead role in the NASA Mars rover missions, which riveted the world, continued Cornell’s stellar space science achievements.


NASA Administrator Charles Bolden examines a KickSat prototype, with Cornell graduate student Zac Manchester.

Since the decommissioning of the space shuttle fleet, Bolden has had to counter cynics who believe that NASA’s glory days are long past. He traced the evolution of NASA’s missions that laid the groundwork for a major paradigm shift: technological innovation is increasing, he argued, and has democratized and commercialized space exploration. What was once the sole province of government is now in the hands of citizen scientists and private companies. Low-cost, readily available technology enables students to launch PhoneSats and CubeSats, such as Cornell’s CUSat, that give students “routine access to space.” As early as next year, “New Space” companies plan to carry private passengers on suborbital flights.

NASA, in effect, has turned over access to low Earth orbit (LEO)–the altitude range at which the International Space Station (ISS) and most satellites orbit–to private companies. “NASA is not in the LEO business. We don’t do LEO anymore. We buy the service. We pay the Russians to carry crew. We pay SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to carry cargo,” Bolden noted.

Reliance on the Russian Federal Space Agency, or Roskosmos, to transport U.S. astronauts to the ISS has caused political controversy. The ISS is a critical partnership for both the United States and Russia, explained Bolden, and Roskosmos’ commitment is “unwavering.” Boeing and SpaceX have secured NASA contracts to ferry U.S. astronauts to ISS as well and are slated to begin transport services in 2017.

Bolden noted that contracting out space transport services has resulted in significant cost savings, allowing NASA to focus on venturing beyond LEO, with greener technology. The ISS, managed by five international partners, is now serving as a springboard for extended missions in space. (Compared to today’s ISS stays of up to six months, Bolden said, his space travels were “camping trips.”) The Orion crew vehicle’s first test flight is set for early December. When it is fully operational, Orion, as part of the Space Launch System in current development, will take astronauts to asteroids and Mars, the first time in decades that NASA will venture past LEO.

When President Barack Obama named Bolden NASA chief in 2009, the president tasked him with securing global partnerships for space exploration. The president advocated including “non-traditional partners” in the family of space-faring nations. Fifteen nations now conduct research on Mars. Spain’s Rover Environmental Monitoring System (REMS) sends a daily weather report from Mars. In September, NASA’s Maven orbiter team tweeted congratulations to India’s first interplanetary mission, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), when it reached the Red Planet.

“Any human mission to Mars will be a global effort,” Bolden emphasized. Spain, along with France and Norway, have partnered with NASA for a 2020 mission to Mars, a precursor to landing humans there by the 2030s. NASA’s international partners continue to view the U.S. agency as the space-faring leader, Bolden added.

NASA also continues to push the boundaries of the aeronautical, atmospheric and space sciences. NASA’s next-generation technology is making air travel safer, more efficient and “greener.” In 2014 alone, NASA launched five new space science missions to measure atmospheric conditions related to climate change. By 2018, the Webb Space Telescope will allow astronomers to decipher the mysteries of planetary, star and galaxy formation. When NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft arrives at Pluto next year, the United States will have spacecraft in the vicinity of every planet (plus the demoted planet itself) and beyond, as Voyager continues its journey past the boundary of the solar system.


Cornell graduate Rodrigo Zeledon describes his electrolysis propulsion research to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

A self-confessed “eternal optimist,” Bolden concluded that it is a great time to be involved in aerospace. He dubbed this generation of students a “space generation” that has grown up watching the ISS orbit overhead. They take for granted that people can live and work in space. November 2, 2014, in fact, marks the 14th anniversary of continuous human space habitation, Bolden noted. The students in the room, he pointed out, may well be the ones to devise technology to shield astronauts from radiation, to create a new propulsion system to transport mass to Mars for human habitation, and to analyze existing data to solve climate change. They will usher NASA through its next big paradigm shift.

Bolden’s speech capped a day-long visit to Cornell Engineering. The administrator gave a guest lecture in Professor Mason Peck’s MAE 3060 Spacecraft Engineering course. Bolden also visited Peck’s Space Systems Design Studio labs to see student-made satellite prototypes and had a lively discussion with freshman engineering students over lunch.


NASA Administrator Charles Bolden gets an update on Cornell’s Violet nanosatellite from project lead Hunter Adams.

“It’s a real honor for the NASA administrator to take the time to visit Cornell, to meet with students and faculty, and to discuss space technology research and education,” said Peck, who worked with Bolden as NASA’s Chief Technologist in 2012 and 2013. “I’m sure the students will remember the spacecraft design class in which he gave a lecture for the rest of their lives. And imagine being one of the freshmen who had lunch with him—what a great way to start your undergraduate studies.”

The William R. Sears Distinguished Lecture, sponsored by Cornell’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, honors the founder and director of the Graduate School of Aeronautical Engineering. A noted aircraft designer and expert in wing theory and transonic flight, Professor Sears also founded Cornell’s Center of Applied Mathematics.

Tiny spacecraft launched into low earth orbit

Zac Manchester, who is studying aerospace engineering at Cornell University, has developed tiny, inexpensive spacecraft called Sprites that are about the size of a cracker. A small satellite called KickSat carried 104 of the Sprites into space in April 2014 and deployed them into low-altitude orbit.

Zac Manchester with KickSat.

Zac Manchester with KickSat.

The KickSat mission launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., after many delays. Sixteen days later, the Sprites were released into a specific orbit as free-flying spacecraft. Within a week of deploying, Manchester expected all of the Sprites to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere at which point they will be vaporized.

A student of Dr. Mason Peck at Cornell, Manchester and his team tracked the Sprites, recorded their radio signals and gathered data. Each Sprite included a small device made by Dallas-based TI, sensors and solar cells to transmit real-time data, such as temperature, back to Earth.

The tiny Sprite satellite.

The tiny Sprite satellite.

“The goal of the KickSat mission is to show that these Sprites can survive in space, that we can talk to them and that they can be useful,” Manchester said by phone. “This is basically my Ph.D thesis.”

He had been working on the Sprites for a few years, using different semiconductors, but wanted “a very tiny, tightly integrated chip with a microcontroller and a radio. Then he found TI’s cc430 device, which combines a microprocessor with a low-power integrated radio frequency transceiver.

Manchester also hopes his project will make space missions more accessible and less expensive.

“More access to space will allow more people to get involved … [and] will open up new types of missions, such as ionospheric science,” he said. The ionosphere is the Earth’s upper atmosphere, which affects radio waves and other communications signals.