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March 26, 2014
NASA EDGE: MMS One Step Closer to Launch


Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS)
- Joanne Baker
- Rommel Zara
- Troy Cline
- Deirdre Wendel


ANNOUNCER:  The Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission.  NASA EDGE goes behind the scenes with the engineers and scientists preparing these satellites for flight.  What kind of tests do they run?  Why are these tests important?  Find out more as they move one step closer to launch, next on NASA EDGE.

FRANKLIN:  Hey guys.  We’re back in the studio once again to talk about one of our favorite topics on missions, the Magnetosperic Multiscale Mission.



CHRIS:  In studio today, we’re going to have Troy Cline who is the Education and Public Outreach manager.  He has some cool activities he is going to share with us in the show.

BLAIR:  I’m actually baffled and amazed by these props.  I look forward to the explanation but I’m also trying to work on stacking right now, which is an important part of MMS.

CHRIS:  Four models for four identical satellites.

FRANKLIN:  We’re actually going to talk about the testing of these satellites.  Each of us had an opportunity to sit down with an engineer to talk about exactly what they do to get these satellites ready for flight.

CHRIS:  I was first up talking with Joanne Baker.  She is the Integration and Test Manager for MMS.  She’s responsible for all the environmental testing that went on for each of the spacecrafts.

JOANNE:  My job is to organize all the activities that go into putting the spacecraft together and testing it.  That also includes coordinating the different teams to work on the spacecraft; put it together, to coordinate the facilities, to make sure we’re ready for various tests, get all the equipment ready and get the tests run.

CHRIS:  It sounds like a pretty complex task.  How challenging is that?

JOANNE:  It can be very challenging.

CHRIS:  Especially with four spacecraft.

JOANNE:  Yes, it’s been quite a juggling act.

CHRIS:  What’s the status of the four spacecraft now?

JOANNE:  Well, three of them are built.  We are running what we call the environmental tests, which basically puts the spacecraft in different flight like environments and verify they are still working.  The fourth one we’re still putting together.  It should be ready in a few months.

CHRIS:  When you say environmental tests, is that the same as putting it through a vibration test to see how the spacecraft would hold up on launch.

JOANNE:  There are several tests that we run.  As you said there’s a vibration test, which basically what we’re doing is simulating the launch vehicle.  There’s a lot of vibration during launch so we need to make sure we can survive that.  We also do, what we call, an EMI test, which is Electromagnetic Interference Test.  We verify all the components operate together and also try to figure out where are they susceptible to noise so we have some basic understanding of where are perimeters are.

CHRIS:  I understand with this particular mission it’s going to be in the magnetosphere of the earth and you’re going to be taking a lot of sensitive data.  I’m assuming the instruments are really sensitive for this mission?

JOANNE:  Yes, in fact, that’s probably one of the biggest things about this mission is we are very highly sensitive.  We have to very careful about magnetics and not contaminating the spacecraft magnetically.  We have to do things like be careful about the tools we use so we don’t transfer magnetics’ from the tools to the spacecraft.  We have to keep things away from the spacecraft, like motors or anything like that, that would cause the magnetic field to transfer to the spacecraft.  The vibration test; there’s big motors in the vibration table that create a lot of magnetic field.  What we had to do was test the tables and make sure we were far enough away from the tables when we ran the tests so that none of those fields would affect the spacecraft.

CHRIS:  Are you building all four spacecraft at the same time or are you building them in parallel or in series?

JOANNE:  We did them in a little staggered, parallel effort.  We started with the first one.  The first one was almost like our guinea pig.  We learned a lot from putting that first one together.  So, it took a little longer.  As we built each of the subsequent ones, we got a little smarter and faster at each of the builds.

CHRIS:  So, by the time you get to this fourth spacecraft you’re just going to whip it out like it’s nothing.  Right?

JOANNE:  [Laughing] Yeah, hopefully it will go a lot smoother.  Let’s put it that way.

CHRIS:  At what point do you know you’ve done your job?

JOANNE:  Really, it’s when we see it go up and we see it all work.  Once we get through the initial turn ons and making sure everything came up okay, that’s really the payoff when that happens.

CHRIS:  I guess the big question is how can we do some testing of our own with the models?

FRANKLIN:  Well, we can actually take these models and go in a car and drive off road and do a shake test.

BLAIR:  Get a little shake test.

CHRIS:  Or a record player or microwave oven, maybe.

FRANKLIN:  Absolutely.

CHRIS:  It’s an important point.  If you think about four spacecraft going into the harshness of space if you don’t test for all of those conditions, you never know how it’s going to react.

BLAIR:  What struck me is that the environments are different at each stage.  You have a different environment in the Clean Room when you’re just building and testing the equipment to make sure it’s okay.  Launch, an entirely different environment.  It’s very rugged, a lot of vibration, and then space, vast temperature changes.  You’ve got to test every situation these will encounter along their way.

FRANKLIN:  One thing Joanne talked about specifically was that the electromagnetic interference that the MMS would encounter in space.  Through magnetic reconnection, they need to make sure that the suite of instruments, on the spacecraft is going to operate.  Taking care of that here on the ground was definitely important.

BLAIR:  What you’re saying is that the people who work in the clean room are definitely not wearing footie pajamas.


FRANKLIN:  You don’t want to drag your foot and touch anything.

BLAIR:  Exactly.

FRANKLIN:  But if you did, you want to make sure the spacecraft is protected.  Another part of the testing process is thermal testing.  I sat down with Rommel Zara who is a thermal engineer.  He told us about the whole process.

FRANKLIN:  Rommel, what exactly is a thermal engineer?

ROMMEL:  A thermal engineer is responsible for the thermal control system of a satellite.  That involves the heating and cooling of specific components and instruments within the spacecraft.  Similar to a house, you have a heating system and a cooling system.  With the furnace and the air conditioning system, a satellite also needs a thermal control system for heating and cooling to withstand the riggers of the space environment.  The hot temperatures in front of the sun and the very cold temperatures behind the Earth

FRANKLIN:  You basically have to go to the NRL, which is the chamber where MMS is stored for the thermal test.  You have to build the heaters that are used to heat it up the chamber or cool it down.

ROMMEL:  Sure.  That’s right.  Yeah, we have a fixture that we call the hamster cage.  Essentially, it’s a giant fixture, maybe 50 feet in diameter.  Imagine a hamster cage wheel.  If you turn it to its side, horizontal, that houses one of our MMS spacecraft.  Within that cage, we have a bunch of panels that we control temperature to simulate the space environment.

FRANKLIN:  Hypothetically speaking, you get a failure.  What is your next action?

ROMMEL:  A failure can mean many things.  It can be as small as a temperature being off by a couple of degrees.  That’s a small failure.  It can be as large as a huge box not performing or just being dead.  Depending on the type of failure, the mitigation steps can be wide varying.  Typically we would test to make sure we understand the problem.  So, we’ll cycle it, hot and cold, power it on and off, to see if we can diagnose it.  We had a specific failure on our first observatory where we got a thermo control system hardware that actually failed during a cold cycle on a thruster.  I’d say that failure is relatively mild in terms of the range of “drasticness,” if that’s even a word in Google.  But, we decided to continue testing to fix that after the thermal vac program.

FRANKLIN:  Have you ever tested a thermal detonator?

ROMMEL:  Thermal detonator?


ROMMEL:  No, we try not to… Well, for example, pyrotechnics to cut deployables, we have done that.  Let me take that back.  We have tested pyros to make sure deployable mechanisms work.  Detonate a small charge to cut a bolt.

FRANKLIN:  Are there any issues that are involved with testing a suite of satellites?  I’m assuming you’re testing one at a time.

ROMMEL:  Yes, we are.

FRANKLIN:  If you have to tests four, what kind of time are we talking about here?

ROMMEL:  Right.  The main challenge is the staffing and the time that you need to do multiple satellites.  One satellite alone takes about a month of testing, 24-7, around the clock.  Holidays, weekends, birthdays, it doesn’t matter.  You’ve got to be there.  So, with four, it quadruples the amount of effort you’ve got to put in there.

FRANKLIN:  Because the satellites will go in orbits in and out of hot, cold, is that the way you test; go back and forth?

ROMMEL:  Yeah.  We have some simulations that specifically mimic those temperature swings in space.  For example, MMS will have a long period in front of the sun where we’re hot.  So, we use our radiators to passively cool the system.  But then, we get behind the earth, we have these long eclipses that get really cold, -273, absolute 0 deep space.  That’s where we use heaters to simulate that cool down and make sure we don’t freeze.  A typical satellite, low-Earth orbit, 30-minute eclipses, MMS, we have 4-hour eclipses.  That’s one of the major challenges of our design, is to keep it from freezing in this long eclipse.

FRANKLIN:  So what happens?  I’m thinking of a movie.  It’s always that movie.

ROMMEL:  A thermal vac movie, huh?

FRANKLIN:  Well, not a thermal vac movie.  It might be a disaster movie.

ROMMEL:  Oh, okay.

FRANKLIN:  Someone’s in a control room, feet up, test is running and there’s a failure.  Does a siren go off?  Do your numbers change?  Do they go from blue to red?  What happens?

ROMMEL:  Exactly like you said.  We have sirens actually, alarms.  For example a temperature requirement gets exceeded.  It gets too hot.  It gets too cold.  The alarm will beep at you.  You’ll get startled.  You’ll get up.  Other failures like LN2 might be leaking and all of the sudden you get a cloud of gaseous nitrogen.

FRANKLIN:  Dude, stop playing Gallagher!  Shut the DVD off.

ROMMEL:  That’s right.  When you get up…

FRANKLIN:  But you don’t go into the chamber.

ROMMEL:  No.  The chamber, there’s a process for opening that chamber back up and it’s a long process.  You’ve got to re-pressurize it.  That takes time and then you’ve got to open it and roll the spacecraft out.  That’s a longer process.  Definitely, there are alarms that will keep you awake if they get triggered.

FRANKLIN:  From a thermal engineering standpoint, who would win out, Mr. Freeze or the Human Torch?

ROMMEL:  Oh, that’s a tough one.  I mean I wear both.  I’m both super heroes.  I’m keep it cool and I’m hot.  Ya know?  So, it’s a tie.


FRANKLIN:  Good deal.

BLAIR:  Great interview with Rommel but Franklin, I’m concerned that you may have created a super hero faux pa in combining Marvel & DC.  Did you do that intentionally?

FRANKLIN:  Uh, well maybe it wasn’t the best comparison to make with regards to the extreme conditions that Rommel test in.  Uh, I guess you got the point.

BLAIR:  Yeah, well, I’m sorry, not a good answer.  Comic Con banned for life.

FRANKLIN:  Troy Cline, what did you think about Rommel and what he had to say?

TROY:  That was a great interview.  I really appreciate it when we can speak with scientists and engineers from such a complex mission and they can come in and explain it at a level that actually I can grasp.  If I can get it, everybody else can get it, including you, Blair.

BLAIR:  Ah, that’s true.  Although, Rommel brought up; actually created a word, “drasticness.”

TROY:  He did.

BLAIR:  I like the freestyle approach he took to the explanation but I’m going to have to look that one up.

TROY:  And I understood what he meant.  So, isn’t that the point of communication?

BLAIR:  Absolutely.

FRANKLIN:  Use your context clues.  Troy, you came up with some really nice giveaways today.  Part of this is actually a bookmark and if you have a smart phone…

TROY:  That’s right.

FRANKLIN:  You could use the QR code on the back of the bookmark to find more information about MMS.

TROY:  We’ve been using QR codes more and more on many of the products we come out with.  It’s fun actually when you see a poster with a QR code and a satellite and how many people walk by and scan it with the code just so they can play with their QR reader or whatever it is that they have.  What’s nice is instead of everything being confined to a piece of paper and the information, which sometimes can change, depending on what happens with the mission.  A QR code allows it to stay dynamic.  You can just go to a website that we keep updated and to the right page without having to fish through thousands of NASA webpages to find it.

BLAIR:  Which is certainly important, especially on a mission like this because things are happening all the time; schedule changes, updates.

TROY:  That’s right.

BLAIR:  You want to know where the spacecraft is and what’s going on, like with the thermal testing and what not.  Before we talk more about the wonderful props that you have brought, we do want to talk about a very important part of MMS, which is science.  We had the opportunity to talk with Deirdre Wendel who actually talked about some theoretical aspects of the mission.  Let’s take a look at that interview.

BLAIR:  Deirdre, how will MMS actually help heliophysicists?

DEIRDRE:  It will provide 30 millisecond time measurements of electrons.  This will allow us, at the same time, to measure much smaller spatial scales because in the previous missions they relied on the spin of the spacecraft, which is four seconds.  Many things can change over four seconds so you do miss a lot of information that way.  The other advantage that MMS will provide all three components of the electric field vector measurements and that will allow us to measure electric fields parallel to the magnetic field, which is an important characteristic of magnetic reconnection.

BLAIR:  I’m going to have to take a lot of that on face value.  But it seems to me like essentially what you’re saying is we’re getting a high definition view of magnetic reconnection in part because of the instruments but also because of multiple spacecraft?

DEIRDRE:  Yes, the multiple spacecraft will allow us to disentangle things that are happening in time from what’s changing in space.

BLAIR:  How will learning what we learn about magnetic reconnection help us in the future moving forward in science?

DEIRDRE:  Understanding magnetic reconnection is important to understanding space weather because space weather relies on coupling between the energy and the mass of the solar wind, and the magnetic bubble of the earth, the magnetosphere.  Magnetic reconnection is the primary coupling mechanism between those two regions.

BLAIR:  How do we study this reconnection currently before MMS?

DEIRDRE:  They study magnetic reconnection through developing numerical simulations that attempt to reproduce the physics governing reconnection.  Another method is to simulate reconnection in a laboratory experiment.  There have been certain observations made in space that have contributed to our knowledge of reconnection but the instrumentation up until now has been much more limited in its ability to provide details about the physics.

BLAIR:  So you currently have 3D models of magnetic reconnection?

DEIRDRE:  Well, recently some of the numerical simulations have incorporated the physics of all three dimensions rather than just two dimensions.  This is primarily because of an increase in computing power that we are able to do that.  This is very important for understanding the realistic physics of reconnection.

BLAIR:  Now, did you go 3D because you were bowing to pressure from all the summer blockbusters being presented in 3D or is there some other compelling reason to drive that?

DEIRDRE:  The motivation was really that people understood that the physics changes when you include that third dimension.  Magnetic apologies is very different, much more complex.  So, to advance our knowledge, it was a natural next step.

BLAIR:  When MMS flies and we start to get data back from it, you’ll be able to apply that data to the 3D models.  Will it be able to confirm some of your theories or will it just give you a more accurate picture?

DEIRDRE:  It will probably confirm and disprove certain theories and as well as providing a more accurate picture.  It may very well present us with some surprises.

BLAIR:  That would be fun.


BLAIR:  So there might be a sequel.

DEIRDRE:  Yes, right, a 3D sequel.

BLAIR:  Alright guys, I’ve got to be honest with you, with the beard I thought I looked far more intelligent.

TROY:  Distinguished.

BLAIR:  Or distinguished.  Okay, but the interview revealed that I’m not very smart.  I tell you it just blew me away to hear Deirdre talk about the things that are being done scientifically ahead of this launch that will actually confirm theories, that will actually reveal things about magnetic reconnection that we literally at this point do not know.

TROY:  That really brings in the importance of the whole idea of numerical simulation, the importance of mathematics along with the science, engineering and technology of a mission like this.  Can you imagine what it would be like if something the size of the Grand Canyon, which the magnetic reconnection region, when they touch, that little piece where they touch is roughly the size of the Grand Canyon.  That’s going thousands of miles an hour through space.  The spacecraft, all four of which are going really fast at the same time, we have to try to bring those two events together and capture it, and she said in just milliseconds.  Faster than you can blink your eye, is how quickly all the instruments aboard these satellites are going to flash at the same time, or basically, snap at the same time.  There really are no cameras aboard; but to capture this entire event in 3D.  That is partially what Deirdre and the people like her are trying to simulate ahead of time through mathematics.

BLAIR:  My mind is folding at the “drasticness” of that illustration.

FRANKLIN:  “Drasticness.”  Yes, I like that.  Trying to wrap your head around the science and engineering that have to come together to make that happen, the Grand Canyon.  The thought of that is mind blowing.

TROY:  Well, it is.  One of my jobs is as an outreach specialist is to try to find ways to bring the people along for that journey.  As the scientists and engineers are learning new ways, new information and all of this, we’d like for the public to do the same thing.  About two year ago, there was a book called Make to Learn.  I’d can to share it with you guys.  This is basically a hard copy book that was created through a NSF grant and University of Virginia.  What I noticed was they had 2D & 3D fabricators that they had on one of the side of one of the shows and they were showing how students were actually able to explore something like wind turbines and electrical power output out of paper models.

BLAIR:  Wow.

TROY:  I thought could we do this with the MMS mission?  I went right up to the people who created this and said we have a new mission that is going up and is being built right now.  Why not get on board at the ground level as the mission is being developed and help us come up with a story line or a storybook that does some of the same things that you’re doing in this trans media book.  At the end of it all, they created a iMAGANTICspace, which is a student book talking a little boy who is on a school bus.  He receives a tweet from NASA that says space weather storm in process.

BLAIR:  That’s real.  That’s no joke.

TROY:  No, that’s no joke.  That really happens.

BLAIR:  Absolutely.

TROY:  There are some intense storms that happen.  This kind of concerned him so he went to his classroom in the story, he talks to his teacher.  They end up getting in touch with an engineer from the MMS mission in the story.  That ushers you into the whole process of 2D & 3D fabrication.  If people don’t have 2D fabricators or 3D fabricators, there are alternate methods you can use to create the whole process.  After iMAGANTICspace was created for students, we created a piece of technology, an iBook for the iPad or iPhone that will train people how to do all of the activities.  We’ll embed it with videos and how to videos and we’ll also add all the science standards, technology standards.  Then we’ll create extension activities, so if you’d like to journal what your students are doing with the student trans media book, you can, online, with about 25 different ed-tech tools that they introduced through the book.

BLAIR:  By the time MMS launches, would we be able to read some of those journal entries and maybe talk about them?

TROY:  Yeah.  The students are actually using the book right now, students in a place called Dublin, Texas.  I don’t know if you’ve ever been.  It’s a very underserved community but they came to us and said we would love to use these materials and test out some 2D fabricators, maybe 3D fabricators, creating different models of the spacecraft, for instance.  They’re actually even considering trying to create out of a 2D fabricator and paper models a clean room to understand part of the engineering process.

BLAIR:  I’ve built a clean room before.  That’s no easy task.

TROY:  I saw that episode.

BLAIR:  Although I could have used a 2 & 3D printer.  I am sure that would be the one missing ingredient that might have changed it.

TROY:  That might have changed that episode.

FRANKLIN:  You know if you had something like an iBook here, it may have been able to help you through that process.

BLAIR:  Absolutely.

FRANKLIN:  You could have put together your clean room and scaled it up to size you actually had it and it may have worked.

BLAIR:  Franklin, you’re reminding me that I could try again.

FRANKLIN:  Yes, you can.

BLAIR:  There’s still opportunity out there for me to learn and grow.

TROY:  Well, there is.  It actually reminds me of yet another school district I have to tell you about in West Virginia.  This is a small school in Paw Paw, West Virginia.  They came to us really excited about iMAGANTICspace and the modeling and all the engineering and science.  We would like to build a life size model out of plywood, balsa wood.  They even found solar panels that they’re going to us to create that.  What’s really nice is theirs is going to be a 1:1, full size scale mode.

BLAIR:  Wow.

TROY:  You can imagine the antennae go out 60 meters.  That’s 180 feet a piece.  I’m not sure how big the gymnasium is going to have to be to contain the…

FRANKLIN:  They’re going to have to take it out to the football field.

TROY:  They’ll have to.  And they’ll have a series of activities and workshops and blueprints they create based on their model that will travel around the state.

BLAIR:  Travel around the state?  Troy, I don’t think you realize what you’ve created in all this.  Through inspiring them, no, you actually created the 5th MMS satellite.  If something goes wrong on the last one, they can just go to Paw Paw, negotiate a little bit and get that 5th MMS.

TROY:  We need to tell the students to get their vacuum chamber prepared.

BLAIR:  Exactly.  They’ve got some environmental testing they’ve got to do.  Absolutely.  Troy, I tell you what.  This is fantastic.  It’s really encouraging to see all that you’ve done but really all the opportunities people have not just to learn about it but to get their hands dirty from a scientific perspective.

TROY:  That’s right.

BLAIR:  Thanks so much, Troy.  Thanks for coming by and we look forward to the next exciting episode following MMS.

FRANKLIN:  You’re watching NASA EDGE, an inside and outside look at all things MMS.

BLAIR:  Good job, Troy.

TROY:  Thanks.

BLAIR:  Do we get to keep these?

TROY:  You can.

BLAIR:  Awesome.

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