Space Missions and Instruments

I work to design, build, test, and operate instruments for measuring electromagnetic fields and cosmic dust grains in diverse space plasma environments such as planetary magnetospheres, planetary ionospheres, the lunar surface, and the solar wind.  My primary experience is with the measurement of electric fields, with a focus on analog and digital signal processing.

I have been fortunate to work on several inspiring space missions funded by NASA, ESA, and the National Science Foundation (NSF).  Choose a mission to learn more about its science goals and the University of Colorado’s contributions to specific instruments.

Missions in PURPLE are concept studies
Missions in BLUE are currently active
Missions in GREEN are in design / build

Missions in ORANGE are completed

Geospace Dynamics Constellation
AETHER Instrument

Geospace Dynamics Constellation (GDC) is a NASA mission designed to study the fundamental physical processes that couple the highest regions of Earth’s atmosphere (the thermosphere) to the lowest region of space dominated by plasma (the ionosphere).

At this interface, neutral gases are driven by forces from below, while plasma is driven by forces from above. GDC will sample these gases (neutral and ionized) as they mix, exchanging energy and mass. These boundary processes are key to understanding the interface between a planet’s atmosphere and space.

GDC uses a constellation of spacecraft to explore these processes on global scales.

AETHER (Atmospheric Electrodynamics probe for THERmal plasma) is an instrument selected for GDC. It consists of a Langmuir Probe combined with an electric field sensor.  Together, these detectors measure the local electron thermal plasma density, electron thermal temperature, and electric field fluctuations.  

My Role:

Co-Investigator on AETHER, Instrument Development on AETHER

The PI for AETHER is Laila Andersson

More Information:

GDC at NASA

Plasma Imaging, LOcal measurement, and
Tomographic experiment (PILOT):

A mission concept for transformational multi-scale observations of mass and energy flow dynamics in Earth’s magnetosphere

Image from Malaspina et al. 2022 (in review), Frontiers - Space Physics

Overview:

PILOT (Plasma Imaging LOcal and Tomographic experiment) is a mission concept designed measure the flow of plasma mass through the Earth’s magnetosphere, and the impact of that mass on magnetospheric processes.

Hundreds of metric tons of ionized atmospheric gases pass into and through Earth’s magnetic field. This mass accumulates in inner magnetospheric reservoirs, is transported through the magnetosphere, where it profoundly regulates magnetospheric subsystems, and can eventually be lost to the solar wind. Cold plasma carries the overwhelming majority of this mass, and tracking its flow is the weakest link in our chain of understanding for magnetospheric physics. Currently, we understand more about the physics of atmospheric mass loss at planets with no intrinsic magnetic field, such as Mars and Venus, than we do at Earth. Understanding magnetospheric mass flows and associated energy flows is critical to understanding the mass loss rate of Earth’s atmosphere, as well as to determining the importance of a planetary magnetic field for atmospheric retention, and therefore habitability, for Earth-like planets beyond the solar system.

The Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder, led a mission concept study to determine how PILOT could be implemented.  A feasible design was reached, and both PILOT science and the PILOT mission concept will be delivered to the National Academies of Science, Solar and Space Physics Decadal Survey (2024 – 2033) as white papers for consideration as a future major NASA mission. 

My contribution:

I am the PI for the PILOT mission concept study.

PILOT Core Science Team:  

David Malaspina (CU/LASP)
Robert Ergun (CU/LASP)
Jerry Goldstein (SWRI)
Laila Andersson (CU/LASP)
Joseph Borovsky (SSRI)
Xiangning Chu (CU/LASP)
Dennis Gallagher (NASA/MSFC)
Vania Jordanova (LANL)
Solène Lejosne (UC Berkeley)
Naomi Maruyama (CU/LASP)
Scott Thaller (CU/LASP)
Brian Walsh (BU)

More information:

National Academies of Science, Solar and Space Physics Decadal Survey (2024 – 2033)

RAPS (Rapid Active Plasma Sounder)

An instrument paper design for the:
Space-Weather CubeSat Array for 24/7 Prompt Global Coverage Experiment (SWAP-E) cubesat

(Status: paper design in progress)

Image from: https://www.nearspacelaunch.com/pages/constellation-solutions-thinsat

Overview:

RAPS (Rapid Active Plasma Sounder), an instrument developed by the University of Colorado, Boulder / LASP, simultaneously measures plasma electron density and VLF plasma waves with a cubesat – compatible electric field instrument.  A paper design of RAPS is being completed to demonstrate its capability to fly on the SWAP-E cubesat constellation (Space-Weather CubeSat Array for 24/7 Prompt Global Coverage Experiment).

The SWAP-E cubesat concept used a novel fan-fold concept to isolate instrument payloads from noisy spacecraft bus systems.  SWAP-E cubesats are developed and operated by NearSpace Launch LLC.  The current iteration is partially funded by an SBIR Phase II grant (Small Business Innovation Research). 

More information:

NearSpace Launch LLC website

COUSIN Sounding Rocket:
A study of small-scale auroral region energy deposition
(Status: Funded, awaiting launch vehicle confirmation in Dec. 2021)
(Planned launch: Feb. 2024)

Overview:

COUSIN is a novel sounding rocket investigation designed to address fundamental open questions of the auroral electrical current system, focusing on small-scale structure and energetics and their impact on the thermosphere. Specifically, COUSIN seeks to address two science questions:

(i) How do background convection, neutral winds, and ionospheric conductivity contribute to small-scale structure of the auroral current system?

(ii) How does the thermosphere respond locally, in terms of winds, to auroral forcing at small scales, including Joule heating and electron precipitation? By addressing these questions, COUSIN will elucidate fundamental electrodynamics process at scale sizes that have not been comprehensively examined, yet are suspected to play a large role in coupling the Earth’s solar-wind driven magnetosphere with its charged particle ionosphere and neutral atmosphere.

The five COUSIN instruments are uniquely capable of achieving significant scientific progress by making the first coordinated measurements at small scales (< 2 km) of plasma, precipitation, and neutral parameters required to determine thermospheric energy deposition and response at the altitudes where it maximizes.

Electron precipitation, known to be highly structured at small scales, strongly modifies plasma conductivity. The Acute Precipitating Electron Spectrometer (APES) and Proton eLectron Advanced Sensor for M-I Coupling (PLASMIC) measure, respectively, low (500 eV – 15 keV) and high (40 keV – 1 MeV) energy precipitating electrons. Knowledge of neutral winds is required to quantify neutral dynamo processes and understand thermospheric responses to energy deposition. The Ionization Gauge (IG) and Cross Track Wind Sensor (CTWS) measure neutral gas velocities, densities, and temperatures in the along-track and cross-track directions. Plasma conductivity, and therefore energy deposition via Joule heating, scales linearly with plasma density. The Rapid Active Plasma Sounder (RAPS) accurately determines the in-situ electron density. To synthesize our measurements into a physical understanding capable of addressing COUSIN science questions, the investigation includes state-of-the-art modeling via the Geospace Environment Modeling of Ion-Neutral Interactions (GEMINI) code.

The COUSIN investigation, consisting of instruments, modeling, and data analysis effort, is provided by US institutions as an integral, and vital, part of the European SYSTER sounding rocket mission. The full SYSTER mission, with COUSIN included, provides a robust, comprehensive set of measurements of small-scale structure and thermospheric responses to energy deposition in the auroral region, including: spatial-temporal disambiguation via free-flyer ejected payloads, multiple independent measures of physical quantities, and extensive ground based context measurements. When integrated into the GEMINI model, these measurements can achieve significant progress quantifying the importance of small-scale structure in this region of space.

Team:

PI: David Malaspina, University of Colorado, Boulder (RAPS instrument)
Co-I: James Clemmons, University of New Hampshire (IG instrument)
Co-I: Allison Jaynes, University of Iowa (PLASMIC instrument)
Co-I: Robert Michell, Goddard Space Flight Center (APES instrument)
Co-I: Marilia Samara, Goddard Space Flight Center (APES instrument)
Co-I: Russell Stoneback, University of Texas, Dallas (CTWS instrument)
Co-I: Matthew Zettergren, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (GEMINI code)

Climatology of Anthropogenic and Natural VLF wave Activity in Space
(CANVAS) Cubesat
(Status: in Development)
(Planned Launch: 2023)

Overview:

CANVAS is a cubesat mission, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), designed to explore the climatology of Very Low Frequency (VLF) waves generated by terrestrial lightning strikes. Lightning VLF waves propagate out of the ionosphere and into the magnetosphere, sending electromagnetic energy into the inner radiation belt (1.5 < L-shell < 3). These VLF waves act to scatter radiation belt electrons, causing them to precipitate into the atmosphere and be lost from the magnetosphere. In this way, lightning acts as a slow but steady loss mechanism for the inner electron radiation belt.

CANVAS includes two instruments: a three-axis search coil magnetometer (SCM) and two-axis AC electric field sensor. The signals from all sensor axes are filtered, digitized, and passed to a signal processing board that performs rapid Fast Fourier Transforms (FFTs) for on-board power spectral and cross-spectral analysis. In this way, CANVAS will be able to determine the power and directionality of lightning-generated VLF waves. Comparing the directionality and timing of each detected lightning event with the World Wide Lightning Network enables climatological investigation of trans-ionospheric propagation of lightning VLF waves.

CANVAS is designed to operate for > 1 year, providing a full climatology of the variations in lightning VLF power and trans-ionospheric propagation for different magnetic local times, seasons, and relative to different geographic locations on Earth.

Students are integral to every aspect of CANVAS, including the design, construction, testing, and eventual on-orbit operation, data analysis, and publication of scientific results. A large team of graduate and undergraduate students has been working on CANVAS through direct hires, as part of University of Colorado Aerospace Engineering graduate studies courses, and through the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.

Hardware Contribution:

I have been working on the electric field instrument design, including the preamplifiers, antennas, signal processing algorithms, and signal processing hardware. CANVAS covers frequencies from ~100 Hz to ~50 kHz. It produces spectra and cross spectral products continuously on a 1 sec cadence and implements data compression.

Designing, building, and testing CANVAS is a team effort by an excellent group of students, engineers and scientists at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU).

The PI for CANVAS is Robert Marshall (CU/AERO)

Further Information:

CU Boulder cubesats

Lunar Surface Electromagnetics Experiment (LuSEE)
(Status: in Development, Planned Launch: 2024)

LuSEE Mascot

Overview:

LuSEE is a NASA-funded instrument designed to explore electromagnetic and electrostatic environment of the lunar surface. Physical phenomena under study are: surface plasma sheath potentials, the lunar surface radio environment, electrostatic signatures of lofted and impacting dust, potential plasma waves, and both low and high frequency magnetic fields. LuSEE will perform exciting firsts from its landing site in the Schrödinger Basin, including the first DC-coupled electric field measurements of the lunar plasma sheath from the surface, and first radio observations from the far side of the Moon. Through lunar surface plasma sheath observations, LuSEE will study the interaction between the lunar surface and the solar wind (for ~2/3 of the Moon’s orbit) and the interaction between the lunar surface and Earth’s magnetospheric plasma (for ~1/3 fo the Moon’s orbit).

LuSEE is composed of flight-spare hardware from the Parker Solar Probe, STEREO, and Van Allen Probes missions. It is designed to be accommodated on a lunar lander as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. This mission is nominally designed for 14 days, but may last longer.

LuSEE is currently under development, scheduled for launch in 2024.

My Hardware Contribution:

I am the Digital Fields Board (DFB) lead, responsible for DFB design, test, and implementation. The DFB is a signal processing board for LuSEE. It performs analog and digital signal processing on 26 channels of data from 7 electric and magnetic field sensors, covering frequencies from DC to 75 kHz. It produces a broad array of science data products, operates a complex burst selection system, and implements advanced data compression.

Designing, building, and testing the DFB is a team effort by an excellent group of engineers and scientists at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU).

LuSEE is led by the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

I am a Science Co-Investigator on LuSEE. 

Further Information:

Link to information on the Schrödinger Basin

Link to NASA’s CLIPS program

Parker Solar Probe (Launched: August 12, 2018. Status: Active)

Artist's Rendering of Parker Solar Probe. Credit: APL/NASA GSFC

Overview:

Parker Solar Probe is a NASA mission designed to explore our nearest star: the Sun.  This exciting mission of exploration will travel closer to the Sun than any prior spacecraft (~9.8 Solar Radii from Sun center). Imagine that the distance between Earth and the Sun is 100 yards.  Solar Probe will travel to a distance between the 4 and 5 yard lines.  The closest approach to the Sun by a spacecraft prior to Parker Solar Probe was Helios 2 in 1976 (~29 yard line).

Only by traveling into the harsh environment close to the Sun can Solar Probe measure the solar wind plasma and electromagnetic fields required to gain new understanding of fundamental physical process related to solar wind heating, acceleration, and the acceleration and transport of energetic particles.

Science Objectives

The mission has three primary science objectives:

  • Trace the flow of energy that heats and accelerates the solar corona and solar wind.
  • Determine the structure and dynamics of the plasma and magnetic fields at the sources of the solar wind.
  • Explore mechanisms that accelerate and transport energetic particles.

My Hardware Contribution

I am the Digital Fields Board (DFB) lead, responsible for DFB design, test, and implementation.  The DFB is a signal processing board for the FIELDS instrument suiteIt performs analog and digital signal processing on 26 channels of data from 9 electric and magnetic field sensors, covering frequencies from DC to 75 kHz.  It produces a broad array of science data products, operates a complex burst selection system, and implements advanced data compression.

Data from the DFB can be found here.

Designing, building, and testing the DFB was a team effort by an excellent group of engineers and scientists at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU).

The DFB is one part of the FIELDS instrument suite, led by the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

I am a Science Co-Investigator on FIELDS. 

Further Information:

Link to wiki page on Eugene Parker

Link to the Parker Solar Probe mission page at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Link to NASA’s Parker Solar Probe page

MMS (Launched: March 13, 2015. Status: Active)

Artist's Rendering of MMS and Earth's Magnetic Field Credit: NASA GSFC

Overview:

MMS is a NASA mission designed to explore the process of magnetic reconnection in unprecedented detail. Magnetic reconnection is the process by which magnetic fields in plasmas change their topology (connectivity). Reconnection is fundamental to plasma dynamics processes throughout the universe, including solar flares and the interaction between the Sun’s magnetic field and Earth’s.

MMS consists of four spacecraft flying in a tight tetrahedron formation. Each spacecraft carries a broad range of instruments to measure plasma particles and electromagnetic fields with the high resolution and accuracies required to resolve electron-scale plasma processes. MMS makes the first highly accurate 3D low-frequency electric field measurements, as well as the fastest thermal plasma measurements to date in the Earth’s equatorial magnetosphere.

Science Objectives:

MMS is designed to answer the following fundamental questions:

  • What determines when reconnection starts and how fast it proceeds?
  • What is the structure of the diffusion region?
  • How do the plasmas and magnetic fields disconnect and reconnect in the diffusion regions?
  • What role do the electrons play in facilitating reconnection?
  • What is the role of turbulence in the reconnection process?
  • How does reconnection lead to the acceleration of particles to high energies?

My Hardware Contribution:

I was responsible for algorithm development, laboratory testing, and verification of the Digital Signal Processor (DSP) electronics board. I am currently involved in implementing in-flight calibrations of the DSP as well as performing analysis and interpretation of DSP data.

The DSP performs analog and digital signal processing on signals from 6 voltage probes and 3 search coil magnetometer axes, covering frequencies from DC to 128 kHz. It produces a broad array of science data products, operates a complex burst selection system, and implements advanced data compression. Each MMS spacecraft carries two DSP boards for redundancy. All DSPs are operating nominally and this redundancy has not yet been utilized.

Data from the DSP board can be found here.

Designing, building, and testing the DSP was a team effort by an excellent group of engineers and scientists at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU). CU/LASP also led the Spin Plane Double Probes (SDP) contribution to the FIELDS instrument suite.

The CU/LASP SDP and DFB PI is Professor Robert Ergun.

The DSP and SDP are parts of the FIELDS instrument suite, led by the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space (EOS) at the University of New Hampshire.

Further Information:

Link to wiki page on Magnetic reconnection

Link to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center MMS page

Van Allen Probes (launched: August 30, 2012, Decommissioned October 2019)

Artist's Rendering of the Van Allen Probes. Credit: APL/NASA GSFC

Overview:

Van Allen Probes is a NASA mission designed to explore the dynamics and fundamental physical processes of Earth’s radiation belts and inner magnetosphere. The shape of Earth’s magnetic field enables charged particles (electrons and ions) to enter into trapped in orbits about the planet. While trapped on these orbits, some of these charged particles are accelerated up to near relativistic energies, posing a risk to spacecraft and humans in near-Earth space.

The Van Allen Probes mission consists of twin spacecraft on similar orbits that slice through the heart of the radiation belts every ~9 hours. Each spacecraft carries a broad range of instruments to measure plasma particles and electromagnetic fields over a wide range of energies and frequencies.

The Van Allen Probes mission has been instrumental in quantifying variations in the near-Earth plasma environment, how the kinetic and magnetic energy of the solar wind is exchanged through the magnetosphere, and how that energy ultimately powers the acceleration of particles up to relativistic energies.

The Van Allen Probes are named after James Van Allen, whose instruments first detected the Earth’s radiation belts in 1958.

Science Objectives

  • The Van Allen Probes mission is designed to answer the following fundamental questions:
  • Which physical processes — singly or in combination — accelerate and transport the particles in the radiation belt, and under what conditions?
  • What are the dominant mechanisms leading to high-energy electron loss?
  • How do the ring current and other geomagnetic processes affect radiation belt behavior?

My Hardware Contribution

I was responsible for laboratory testing and verification of the Digital Fields Board (DFB). I am currently involved in implementing in-flight calibrations of the DFB as well as performing analysis and interpretation of DFB data.

The DFB performs analog and digital signal processing on signals from 6 voltage probes and 3 search coil magnetometer axes, covering frequencies from DC to ~8 kHz. It produces a broad array of science data products for the Electric Fields and Waves (EFW) instrument.

EFW data can be found here.

Designing, building, and testing the DSP was a team effort by an excellent group of engineers and scientists at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU).

The CU/LASP DFB PI is Professor Robert Ergun.

The DFB is part of the Electric Fields and Waves (EFW) instrument, led by the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

Further Information:

Link to wiki page on James Van Allen

Link to the Van Allen Probes mission page at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Link to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Van Allen probes page