Students help build Delaware ground station for NASA mission
Editor’s note: Research, community service, internships and study abroad are part of the summer for University of Delaware students. Follow them in action in our series of profiles and stories, which will be collected on the Driven to Discover website: https://www.udel.edu/home/driven-to-discover/
Jeffrey Neumann and Ahmad Tamimi are involved in the NASA CURIE mission, which is being led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Delaware. CURIE — which stands for Cubesat Radio Interferometry Experiment — will use small satellites, about the size of a toaster oven, to gather data about the super-charged plasma that radiates from the sun, especially during solar flares. These violent eruptions of high-energy radiation can kill astronauts in space and damage electrical systems here on Earth.
Q. Where are you from?
Tamimi: I am from Palestine and reside in Ramallah. I lived there for my entire life up until I came to the U.S. to study at UD. I still visit home almost every summer/winter break.
Neumann: I’m a Delaware local. My hometown is Newark, Delaware.
Q. What are you majoring in?
Tamimi: My major is computer engineering with minors in computer science and cybersecurity. I am a rising junior.
Neumann: I’m a mechanical engineering major with a minor in both computer science and electrical engineering. I am a rising sophomore.
Q. What does your project focus on?
Tamimi: The mission of our group revolves around studying plasma that the sun radiates. Our team here at UD focuses on building the ground station that will help pick up data transmitted from two satellites in orbit. Most of the work is done in our professor’s lab in the Sharp Lab building. However, the team occasionally visits Mount Cuba Observatory, as it is going to be the base for the ground station. I am working with one other undergraduate student (Jeffrey) and a recent graduate (Campbell Graff, Jr.) under the supervision of Professor Ben Maruca.
Neumann: My summer scholars topic is more project-oriented instead of research-based. I am currently tasked with writing the code that will control the rotor of a ground station and dictates the TCP packet structure that our various computers will be communicating with. I spend the majority of my time in a small lab on the third floor of Sharp Lab, but sometimes I will work at our ground station site at Mount Cuba Observatory. I work with Professor Maruca and my two other teammates — fellow undergrad Ahmad, and Campbell, who graduated from UD with his physics degree this past spring and is assisting with the research.
Q. What inspired this project and what interests you most about it?
Tamimi: The inspiration for this project came from a lack of understanding of plasma — 99.9% of the universe is made up of plasma, yet we know so little about it. The closest source of plasma to us is our sun. Thus, studying plasma will help us make more sense of the universe!
There is more than one thing that inspired me about this project, though. The idea of building a sophisticated ground station to communicate with two satellites is very intriguing and the programming involved would have to be very involved as well. It is this challenge that interests me the most. What also interested me about this whole project is that it is space-related. Ever since I was 3 years old, my dream was to become an astronaut. However, when I turned 8 years old, I was told that I have color blindness and my chances of becoming an astronaut plummeted to nothing. I didn’t let that stop me. I am still pursuing my dream, and I am getting closer to and living my dream knowing that my work here is going to help in space exploration.
Neumann: This project is not my idea but, instead, is my professor and his associates’ at UC Berkeley. I find this topic extremely interesting as I have always been a space enthusiast, and the code I am writing will directly interface with orbiting satellites.
Q. What is a typical day like?
Tamimi: A typical day of work would be laying out and building the communication systems between the computer at the ground station and the dish pointing to the satellites. Working/communicating with rotors, UPS systems, etc. Testing out the systems and making sure they are working the way they are supposed to, is essential. What’s even more important is that these systems work in unison and are reliable as they would be running continuously for five years. On some occasions, we visit Mount Cuba to lay out the conduit, and we plan on assembling a 3-meter-wide dish there in August.
Neumann: On a typical day, I will get into the lab around 8 a.m. and start coding in Python. I normally set out daily goals for myself such as implementing threading, optimizing code, documentation, etc. This helps me not get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of code (over 1,000 lines and counting). I would leave to go back to my dorm anywhere between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Q. What hurdles or learning curves have you overcome in the work?
Tamimi: I had to learn how to take on a big project and dissect it down into smaller projects and daily goals. I had found that setting daily goals helps tremendously and keeps things on track. You suddenly don’t feel as overwhelmed by a big project anymore and you just take things step by step. I have also learned to ask my team members questions if I am feeling confused about a certain topic or if I want their opinion on a certain matter. A different set of eyes definitely helps.
Neumann: I’ve had to learn an insane amount of new Python skills to do some of my code. Although CISC106 [General Computer Science for Engineers 106] taught me the basics of Python, it missed out on subjects such as threading, TCP communication, object orientation, satellite tracking, Date-Time objects and custom packet structures. For the first two weeks of this project, I primarily read the documentation and wrote practice scripts in order to learn all of this stuff. In addition to overcoming new Python skills, I’ve had to infer a lot about how I should go about coding this program. Although I like to think that I’m good at writing Python, truth is I’ve only been coding for less than a year and I have no experience with writing professional applications. With the help of my professor, I have been slowly getting better with my coding conventions.
Q. What are the possible real-world applications for your study?
Tamimi: Plasma is actually being used in many high-tech industries. It is helping us make better microelectronic components such as semiconductors. It is also used to make transmitters for microwaves and even high-temperature films. Plasma TVs, as the name suggests, use plasma. Fluorescent lamps, neon signs also use plasma. However, in nature, you can find it in lightning strikes, and the polar auroras.
Neumann: The real-world application of this project will be the ability to set up multiple ground stations anywhere in the world and have them track multiple satellites without having to write an individual program for each station. This code could be used by professional 3-meter dish ground stations (like the one we are building) all the way to little Servo-operated ground stations that I might make in my free time.
Q. How would you explain your work to a fifth grader?
Tamimi: You know how you can talk to your mom and dad and your siblings and understand each other? You can be doing one thing and your brother another thing, but you can still talk and plan stuff with each other, right? Let’s say you had met someone your age who speaks a different language, how would you talk to him? You can get someone who knows how to talk in your language and the other kid’s language and he can translate what you say to each other. This is very similar to what I do. I get multiple machines that don’t know how to talk or send commands to each other to be able to do just exactly that and plan for special events (like birthday parties).
Neumann: Hmmm, interesting question. I suppose I would stick to the basics. I would tell them that I’m creating a program that can track satellites (such as the International Space Station) by shifting a large antenna dish across the sky to continuously point to where a satellite is. Maybe I could bridge some of the more complicated aspects of my work by introducing thought questions such as “How do computers on the internet communicate with each other?”
Q. What advice would you give younger students (middle/high school) with similar interests?
Tamimi: Do not let anything hold you down. Keep on pursuing your dreams and take things step by step. It is good to look at the big picture but sometimes things can be overwhelming. So break up your day into tasks and goals. Do not be afraid to ask questions and get advice or input from your peers, a different perspective may be all that you need to get over whatever you are going through. You can learn anything you want nowadays. Everything you want is on YouTube and many other platforms.
Neumann: I would advise them to try to take small steps to break into the industry. I would recommend they watch SpaceX launch live streams, join a local model rocket club, look into Python (it’s easier than you think), and to show a general interest in space-related news/discoveries.
Q. What do you enjoy when you are not doing research?
Tamimi: I play soccer twice a week with a close group of friends at UD. I play pool at the Hen Zone and enjoy some FIFA, ping-pong, etc., with my UD friends. I also enjoy learning new things, like a programming language, or an encryption method, and learning how to 3D print and make intricate designs using solid works. I am always ready to expand my knowledge in my field of study!
Neumann: Hopefully, this doesn’t sound too nerdy, but I enjoy learning new Python skills in my free time. Recently, I’ve been getting into Arduino coding and I enjoy it a lot. If I feel like just relaxing instead of being productive, I’ll start binge-watching YouTube videos.