Aerospace Across the U.S.A. — NASA Ames

by Heather Golden
posted April 02, 2013

This article about the NASA Ames office of The Aerospace Corporation kicks off a series that will feature people and projects at the smaller Aerospace locations spread across the country, often at customer locations.

NASA Ames Research Center Director S. Pete Worden reviews LADEE thermal vacuum test data with Alisa Hawkins of the Aerospace NASA Programs Division. (Photo courtesy NASA.)

NASA Ames Research Center Director S. Pete Worden reviews LADEE thermal vacuum test data with Alisa Hawkins of the Aerospace NASA Programs Division. (Photo courtesy NASA.)

A project supported by Aerospace at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. means the United States is one step closer to putting a person on the moon — and keeping him or her there.

The five-person Aerospace team recently supported integration and testing of NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), set to launch in August.

NASA originally invited Aerospace onto Ames five years ago to support an early-stage spacecraft and mission design work. Now, the same group’s focus is almost entirely on LADEE.

LADEE will orbit the moon at a 50-kilometer altitude to investigate lunar dust and residual atmosphere. NASA made critical design changes to LADEE’s S-band transceiver engineering unit, based on Aerospace recommendations, that incorporated a digital automatic gain control (AGC), instead of the original analog AGC. It was Chester Wolejsza, an Aerospace senior engineering specialist, who discovered the gain of the analog AGC circuits was “falling off at lower received power levels” and suggested using the digital version instead, said Dr. Jon Neff, the Aerospace team’s senior project leader at the NASA Ames facility.

Ames Office At A Glance:

  • Number of employees – Five.
  • Major customer – NASA.
  • Location – Mountain View, Calif.
  • Location type – Embedded with customer.
  • Nearest major city – San Jose and San Francisco.
  • “Top dog” – Jon Neff, Ph.D., Senior Project Leader
  • “I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. I guess I never grew out of it.” – Dr. Jon Neff

The LADEE project first came to life during the most recent Bush administration, when space exploration was high on the list of national priorities. Its mission was to study the moon’s environment before and after large-scale human interaction, such as in the case of establishing a permanent moon base.

Even though national priorities have changed, LADEE is still going to answer questions the scientific community has been asking since the United States’ last moon landing, said Neff.

“The Apollo astronauts saw the dust several kilometers above the surface,” he said. “They didn’t have the equipment with them to test it. It was tantalizing.”

LADEE’s research is about more than simply wanting to know what the Apollo astronauts saw glowing above the moon.

“Most people think of the moon as having no atmosphere, as being a complete vacuum,” Neff added. “But, in fact, there are little particles of dust that constitute a very thin atmosphere.”

“We want to understand [the atmosphere] for the sake of future missions if we go back,” Neff said. “If we do ever build a base, we’re going to want to know more about it.”

For LADEE to be a success, NASA still needs government approval to use a specific spectrum of radio frequencies to transmit data back and forth to LADEE. Aerospace engineers are helping make this a reality. The same Aerospace support is concurrently being provided for another NASA project, the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS).

“Spectrum engineering is the art and science of identifying the appropriate spectrum for a project,” Neff said. “It’s a combination of science and engineering, and part of it is understanding the regulations, too.

LADEE will also carry a Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) package, Neff said. The system will demonstrate how laser communication, or lasercom, can be used to transmit more data at much higher speeds than what is currently possible using a standard radio frequency system. Lasercom “will enable NASA, or other government agencies and the commercial space industry to undertake future, complex space missions requiring increased data rates, or decreased mass, size and power burdens for communication,” according to a recent NASA press release.

With LADEE’s upcoming launch fast approaching, Neff’s team is always on the lookout for more ways to lend NASA their expertise.

Both NASA Ames and Aerospace have active cube satellite programs, although the two organizations do not currently conduct joint CubeSat missions. But, Neff said it is a prime example of the “common interests” the two share.

“Aerospace is making a real contribution to the nation in our work for NASA,” Neff said. “We are constantly exploring additional avenues for collaborative research operations and activities. Our civil space customers greatly value our expertise.

“We offer a breadth and depth of capability that is hard to find anywhere else,” he added.

Taking in the local atmosphere

The Ames facility, located in the heart of Silicon Valley, was founded in December 1939 as a facility of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. It became a part of NASA nearly 20 years later, in 1958, when NASA was formed.

The area has been referred to as a “research cluster,” and Ames is surrounded by a multitude of laboratories, high-tech companies and universities, all focused on the advancement of technology.

Many of the companies are also entrepreneurial in nature, and that spirit of innovation is contagious, Neff said.

However, life at Ames is not all about the workload for the Aerospace team. When they are not helping keep space missions on track and successful, the group relaxes with a little quality recreational time together.

“We meet for lunch every week at the Tied House, a restaurant in Mountain View,” Neff said. “This weekend a couple of folks are coming to my place for a house concert performed by some non-Aerospace friends who are folk singers.”

Still, the time spent at the office surpasses the time away from it in many ways. The team views their work as researchers and engineers as part of the fun, too. Neff said he particularly enjoys the “creative aspect of engineering:  developing new concepts and seeing them start to take shape.”

“Like many people I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. I guess I never grew out of it,” he said.

To learn more about the projects or life at NASA Ames, check out http://www.nasa.gov/centers/ames.