August 14, 2002
How did you spend your summer vacation? A group of college students working at JPL will have a unique answer to that mundane question when they head back to school this fall.
They are taking part in a NASA and JPL mission concept study that is building the foundation for what may become a high-resolution observation network to monitor coastal ecosystems.
The students, from Caltech's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship and NASA's Undergraduate Student Research Program, are addressing how ecosystems respond to and affect global environmental change and the carbon cycle. They are also considering how coastal regions are affected by climate and sea level changes and increased human activities.
"By the year 2010, over 70 percent of the U.S. population will live within 75 kilometers (about 47 miles) of a coast. We're developing a mission that will have a large customer base," said Dr. Paul M. DiGiacomo, a JPL coastal oceanographer and the principal science investigator for this mission concept study. "The information we gain from this proposed mission will help the scientific community assess how coastal ecosystems are changing. We can then give policymakers the best possible science for them to make informed decisions regarding how to manage these important, productive regions."
JPL engineer Lloyd French has run the summer student program for JPL's Center for Space Mission Architecture and Design for the last three years. Undergraduate students who apply to the program are competitively selected based on several criteria, including proposals they write identifying important science questions and potential mission architectures.
"Students are at JPL for 10 weeks, and they maintain a rigorous schedule," French said. "They experience the same things all scientists and technologists experience during the proposal preparation and review process; they get grilled to ensure they are delivering the best possible product. The students run it autonomously - it's their baby."
This study concept explores the idea of combining one or more Earth-observing satellites with coastal ocean sensor web platforms deployed in the water to provide comprehensive coverage of U.S. coastal zones. This integrated system would provide high-resolution measurements to help answer questions about the complex physical and biogeochemical properties of coastal waters. Instruments in the water would have the ability to communicate with one another, and would complement the satellite(s) by providing information from below the ocean surface as well. This integrated system would provide researchers with a comprehensive look at coastal waters several times a day.
This summer's team is comprised of seven engineering students, one biology student, NASA Summer Faculty Fellow Dr. Crist Khachikian from Cal State Los Angeles and JPL systems engineer Dr. Andrew Bingham. All the students are interested in the ocean, but for the most part they have no formal training. At the beginning of the summer they were given what DiGiacomo called a "crash course" in oceanography.
"We are asking them to do something they've not done before and to build things they've never built before," French said. "The students have brought fresh concepts and ideas to the table. They are under a lot of pressure and they do an outstanding job."
Each student is responsible for a different subsystem. For example, Melanie Gainey, who attends Boston University, handles the instruments for the platforms that will make actual measurements in the ocean. Another student manages communication issues, while yet another designs the power systems.
Bob Thompson, leader of the student group, hopes to attend graduate school and eventually become a systems engineer after he completes his undergraduate work at Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta. He thoroughly enjoys and values the experience he is getting at JPL.
"We are seeing how real mission design work is done and getting a feel for what the proposal process is like and actually presenting our results," Thompson said.
Gainey, too, enjoys the program's hands-on approach.
"It was kind of intimidating at first, but we work well as a group," she said. "They treat us like regular scientists or engineers writing proposals."
Students began their summer experience at JPL by attending a number of lectures from on-lab experts, including Dr. Kevin Delin of the JPL Sensor Webs Project, as well as outside specialists from academic and research institutions that include UCLA, USC, and the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project. The program's educational outreach partner is the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, Calif., where the students took a field trip (including a cruise on the Institute's research vessel) to see firsthand the coastal ecosystem their mission will target.
The students wear two hats - one for science and one for engineering. The first half of their 10-week stint, they don their science caps, identifying the science objectives, coming up with a cohesive science rationale and focus, and then undergoing a demanding science review by JPL and outside scientists.
Switching hats, the second half of the summer finds the students hammering out the engineering challenges. They must figure out how to divide tasks into subsystems and how to implement the mission. As the summer progresses, the students will go through an engineering review, a red team review (where their mission design concept is challenged to find any design elements that aren't viable) and a final review.
The hands-on experience that students receive by participating in the summer mission design program is of immense value to them and to the future of JPL and agencies like it. As DiGiacomo puts it, "We are training the next generation of scientists and technologists."
Contact: JPL/Colleen Sharkey (818) 354-0372