Sea to Space Particle Investigation: Particles, Holograms, and the iPhone 5: My Top Three Activities During the Sea to Space Particle Investigation

January 11th, 2017 by Noah Walcutt, University of Rhode Island

Research Vessel Falkor. Credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

In just two short weeks I’ll be trading the cold, snowy beaches of Rhode Island for the warm, tropical beaches of Hawaii. Such is the life of an oceanography graduate student!

Although I do enjoy traveling and discovering new places, what’s most exciting is that I’ll have an entire month to conduct my research in the Pacific Ocean alongside some of the top scientists in optical oceanography. Together we’ll be looking at particles in the upper layers of the ocean during the Schmidt Ocean Initiative’s Sea to Space Particle Investigation aboard the R/V Falkor.

So what exactly will I be doing while I’m in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Here are my top three activities at sea:

  1. Assist in the completion of the primary science mission: ground truth satellite estimates of particle size distribution. Although this is highly dependent on the needs of the chief scientist, on previous research cruises this has involved standing watch on instrument readouts to make sure everything’s running smoothly, deploying a water column sampling device called a “CTD”, or simply lending a hand to move equipment around while we’re underway. Science operations run 24 hours a day so it’s important to be a good team player and distribute the continuous workload.

  2. Gather measurements of the carbon cycle that will be used in my graduate work at the University of Rhode Island. Carbon in the atmosphere has historically been a good thing for the habitability of our planet (it makes it warm!), but too much carbon has led to global warming (a bad thing for the habitability of our planet). It’s estimated that one quarter of the carbon emitted from human activities is absorbed by the ocean via microscopic ocean plants called phytoplankton. Although many of these plants are eaten by larger organisms, a small fraction gets down deep where its carbon is out of contact with the atmosphere.The sinking (or export) of these carbon particles to the deep ocean is what I study. In our lab, we use an underwater holographic microscope to take 3-D pictures (the size of the tip of a needle) from the surface ocean all the way down to around 600 feet deep. Using these pictures we try to estimate how much carbon is being exported. It’s super fun! I’ll also be working with a computer scientist to analyze these images after we collect them on the ship’s high performance computing cluster.

  3. Deploy homemade underwater time-lapse cameras. In addition to the holographic microscope, we also measure carbon export directly by catching and then counting these sinking carbon particles in gel-filled cups. Beneath each of these cups (called sediment traps) we plan to enlist the high-caliber photographic abilities of a discarded smart phone to record these particles as they collect. We’ve designed and developed a special pressure housing and lighting system to keep the camera working and well lit under all that pressure and darkness. Who knew the iPhone 5 could be used for science 400 feet below the ocean’s surface?

Going to sea is a lot like being at a high-end summer camp—someone cooks your meals and does your laundry while you spend almost all day engaging in an exciting stream of team activities. It’s a very social experience with many late night hours talking science and scheming the next experiment all while working on the most urgent area of science: climate change.  I couldn’t be more excited.





Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS): CYGNSS Progress Report and Year-end Reflections

December 27th, 2016 by Mary Morris

As the year comes to a close, I’m probably not the only one looking back at how 2016 panned out. For the CYGNSS team, we ended 2016 with a lot of excitement, after carefully and patiently working on pre-launch development for the past few years. It takes a long time to develop things in careful and systematic way, and now we get to look at the on-orbit data to make sure everything makes sense.

As of December 21, all eight satellites continue to be healthy. The engineering commissioning phase continues slowly but surely, so that we can transition into science operations soon. I know the entire science team is excited for this, but we will continue to be patient.

On a more personal note, I am also reflecting on a busy December. After attending the CYGNSS launch, I flew back to Ann Arbor to defend my Ph.D. dissertation—successfully, I might add! I’m currently working through the edits to my dissertation so that I can hit the ground running as a research fellow when I get back to Ann Arbor after a much-needed winter break with my family. With all of the excitement of December, I don’t think I’ve fully realized that my graduate school career is over. Most students don’t experience a satellite launch and a Ph.D. defense within a week of each other … and I’m not sure I would recommend that schedule to others! As I reflect on my graduate school journey, I’m glad all of my hard work has paid off, and I’m looking forward to new exciting moments as I further my career. I’ll always remember December 2016 as one of the busiest and most exciting times of my life. Here’s to more adventures in Earth science!

My first time at John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC), and hopefully not my last!

My first time at John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC), and hopefully not my last!

Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS): First Contact Made with CYGNSS Satellites on Orbit

December 16th, 2016 by Mary Morris

It’s Friday, and the excitement of launch day yesterday still hasn’t worn off. Not only did we see CYGNSS get launched into space, we were also able to make first contact with them. I talked about the excitement of the launch itself yesterday, so today’s post will describe our experiences communicating with each of the eight satellites for the first time.

First, I want to remind you of what our spacecraft looked like, all bundled up and stacked on the deployment module:

All eight spacecraft, with their solar panel wings stowed, attached to the deployment module eventually contained in the Pegasus XL launch vehicle.

Once it reached the right altitude, the deployment module pushed pairs of satellites off in different directions. A little while after being deployed, the spacecraft solar power panel wings unfolded, and the spacecraft went into “sun point” mode, which is exactly what it sounds like: the spacecraft maneuvered to get their solar panels pointed directly towards the sun for maximum charging. This sequence of events is illustrated in this artist representation of the deployment sequence:

During deployment, the spacecraft are pushed off the deployment module to start their solo orbits. The solar panel wings unfurl after the satellite is deployed.

During deployment, the spacecraft are pushed off the deployment module to start their solo orbits. The solar panel wings unfurl after the satellite is deployed.

After launch, we needed these satellites to start charging their batteries as soon as possible, via the solar panels. Although we only need six working satellites to meet our science requirements, we’re always chasing perfection. At 11 AM EST, we all gathered in a conference room to take a look at the first engineering data coming down from the satellites.

We weren’t the only ones looking at the data, however. CYGNSS team members at Southwest Research Institute’s Mission Operations Center (MOC) in Boulder, CO are operating 24/7 to monitor engineering data we get from the satellites, as well as set up communications with the satellites via our ground stations in Hawaii, Chile, and Australia. At the MOC, they were sending commands and planning out the communication timeline, depending on the scenario we ran into.

What you might not remember is that initially after deployment, the satellites are still pretty close to each other while orbiting. This makes it challenging to talk to more than one or two satellites at a time when they are in our contact zones. We had a detailed plan that included a timeline for which satellites were going to be communicated with, when, and from which ground station. Contacting all eight satellites would take all day—a day that started at 2 o’clock in the morning for some of us!

The second exciting moment of the day was seeing the engineering data come down from the first satellite we contacted. The conference room was tense and dead silent at 11:40 AM EST, 2 minutes before first contact. I could hear everyone’s watches tick. When the first data showed up on the screen, we all breathed a sigh of relief. All the engineering data looked good! We relaxed a bit after that.

As the day went on, we contacted more and more satellites. While others exchanged horror stories they had experienced during previous missions during the first day, we tried to hope for the best. We were nervous and hesitant to declare success until we had thoroughly analyzed the limited data we had. It was fascinating to see how engineers could connect the dots between the temperatures of different parts of the spacecraft and things like the orientation and motion of the spacecraft with respect to the sun.

After successfully contacting all eight spacecraft by 3:30pm EST, we still weren’t completely sure whether one satellite had stabilized in sun point mode, but there wasn’t much that those in the conference room could do about it. We had to let the folks in the MOC work their magic. And work their magic they did! Overnight, all eight satellites were declared “green.” It sure was nice waking up to that news.

Over the coming weeks, the engineering commissioning phase will proceed. The folks at the MOC will be busy, even though it’s nearing the holidays. Prof. Ruf, currently at the MOC, sent me a few photos of all the action earlier today.



The MOC team hard at work pouring over initial engineering data from the spacecraft on December 16, 2016. Photo credit: Chris Ruf

The MOC team hard at work pouring over initial engineering data from the spacecraft on December 16, 2016. Photo credit: Chris Ruf

According to Prof. Ruf, as of 5:00pm EST, things were still going smoothly. We all hope things continue to go well over the coming days and weeks before we go into science operations mode.

Thanks MOC team! Go CYGNSS!

Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS): CYGNSS Launch Day Thoughts

December 15th, 2016 by Mary Morris

I’m currently writing from Hangar AE, where it all happened. While we wait to make contact with all of the CYGNSS satellites after launch, I’m going to attempt some coherent thoughts about the past few days.

You may already have been following what’s been going on since my last post, but I’ll give a brief summary from someone who experienced it more directly.

We tried to launch on Monday, but had to return to base after two aborts. It was frustrating to see weather-related violations go green as we turned to dealing with aircraft anomalies. Eventually, we had to abort on Monday morning due to an anomaly with the hydraulic pump associated with the release mechanism on the L-1011 aircraft. Even though we showed up excited and ready to rock and roll, things just didn’t go our way on Monday. One thing I’ve learned is that there is an unlimited amount of things that can go wrong. It’s very rare for things to go according to plan. Even though we had to abort, the flight team wasn’t too disappointed—this is how things usually go. Things didn’t go entirely smoothly after that, either. We ended up finding an issue with flight parameter data on Tuesday, delaying  our next attempt until today, Thursday.

At 3 o’clock this morning I sat down at my console in the engineering backroom—the cheap, but more fun seats. Everyone “on console” has a headset that can be used to tune into many different communication channels. There is a whole channel dedicated for anomalies! We got there at 3 am because there is a whole binder full of steps to complete before we could launch. In addition to all of the audio we could tune into, there were many video feeds and displays of housekeeping data. Talk about information overload! It was easy to stay awake on a few hours of sleep with all of those stimuli in front of me. The adrenaline also helped.

While we watched the feeds, we would keep track of the housekeeping data to make sure everything looked okay. We also had a video feed from the chase plane to keep tabs on the rocket. I remember everyone being absolutely glued to their screens in nervous anticipation as we watched the video of the Pegasus XL rocket launch. In the engineering backroom, I was joined with other engineers who were very excited to see CYGNSS launch so beautifully. Here is a photo of everyone while we watched the rocket launch:
The engineering backroom crew was excited about the CYGNSS launch finally happening.

The engineering backroom crew was excited about the CYGNSS launch finally happening.

After all of the headaches earlier in the week, it was bizarre how well everything went today. In a flash, all of the CYGNSS satellites were orbiting and the L-1011 aircraft returned safely. Here is a photo of me, which hopefully portrays how excited I was, even with just a few hours of sleep.

Happy to see CYGNSS satellites up in orbit, while watching the feeds in our back control room.

Happy to see CYGNSS satellites up in orbit, while watching the feeds in our back control room.

We’re also so happy for Prof. Ruf and the entire team that made CYGNSS happen. Immediately after we launched, Prof. Ruf was bombarded by interviewers who wanted his take on the success of the mission.

While we had some post-launch down time, before we could communicate with the spacecraft, a beaming Prof. Ruf is interviewed in Hangar AE after the CYGNSS satellites were deployed.

A few hours after launch, we were able to start communicating with the spacecraft, but I’ll save a separate blog post for that topic since it was absolutely fascinating. Stay tuned and go CYGNSS!


Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS): CYGNSS Scheduled for Launch Tomorrow!

December 11th, 2016 by Mary Morris

I’ve just gotten back from the CYGNSS pre-launch reception. We were happy to get to this day, after countless hours of hard work. Now, we’re all just excited and nervous to see what happens when our baby CYGNSS satellites (Octuplets!) are born into the world. We can’t wait to see what science mysteries CYGNSS data will help us unlock.

If all goes according to plan, on Monday, Dec. 12, at 8:24 a.m. EST, the spacecraft will launch aboard Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL rocket. The rocket will deploy from Stargazer, Orbital ATK’s L-1011 carrier aircraft, over the Atlantic Ocean. You can watch coverage of the launch on NASA TV. The L-1011 will begin to taxi at 7:11 AM, taking off at 7:26 AM. The launch window opens at 8:19 AM. Prof. Ruf and I had fun hanging out near the L-1011 on Saturday, and I think this photo gives you some idea of the size of the rocket and aircraft.

Prof. Ruf and I chat with the L-1011 aircraft and Pegasus XL rocket in the background. Photo credit: Aaron Ridley

Prof. Ruf and I chat with the L-1011 aircraft and Pegasus XL rocket in the background. Photo credit: Aaron Ridley

Here is a photo of the chase plane, which will monitor the rocket visually, providing us with footage back in the control room:


The plane that will fly near the L-1011, getting us a visual on the rocket as it flies out to the launch area. Photo credit: Aaron Ridley

I have an early morning and long day ahead of me, so I’m going to sign off now. Stay tuned and go CYGNSS!

Notes from the Field