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Last Post 10/21/2008 2:52 PM by  Pat Reiff
Research on Space
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10/20/2008 12:29 AM

    Did you build or work on an instrument, which is now used in space?

    Tags: Rockets, Spacecraft Instruments, IMAGE, MMS, Apollo, launch, instruments, Cluster

    Kris Sigsbee

    Basic Member

    Basic Member

    10/20/2008 8:23 AM


    I have done some work on spacecraft and rocket instruments. It's a lot of fun!

    I've been analyzing data from an instrument called the Wideband Data (WBD) Plasma Wave Receiver that is currently in orbit on board the Cluster mission. The Cluster mission consists of four satellites flying in formation and each one has its own WBD Plasma Wave Receiver. This instrument measures radio and plasma waves propagating through the Earth's magnetosphere and the solar wind. We did not completely understand some of the signals measured by the WBD Plasma Wave Receiver in the Earth's foreshock, which is a region in the solar wind just upstream of the Earth's bow shock. Fortunately, the WBD Plasma Wave Receiver was built right here at the University of Iowa, so we have the flight spare. When people build an instrument for a spacecraft, they always make a spare, just in case something happens during the satellite integration and testing. The spare instrument can also be used to conduct bench tests on the ground after the spacecraft has been launched to troubleshoot any unexpected problems that arise. In my case, I conducted bench tests of the spare instrument in order to determine the causes of the signals we did not understand. It turns out that these signals are not natural waves produced in the solar wind. Instead, these signals are produced by the WBD Plasma Wave Receiver electronics. Now that I've determined the cause, I'm writing a paper for a journal about this to help other scientists and engineers design and calibrate future spacecraft instruments. You can learn more about the WBD Plasma Wave Receiver here:

    I have also helped assemble and test particle detectors for a NASA sounding rocket called Correlations of High-Frequencies and Auroral Roar Measurements (CHARM) that was launched in 2007. The purpose of this rocket was to study the relationship between high-energy electrons and a type of wave called auroral roar that is observed high up in the ionosphere during displays of the northern lights. We had 8 bagel and 2 top hat type detectors for electrons on this rocket, so testing them was a lot of work. You can read more about what it was like to test the particle detectors in the Solar Week blog:

    Right now, I'm just writing scientific papers and analyzing data, but I'm hoping that I can do more work with spacecraft and rocket instruments soon. It's very challenging work, but it's incredibly exciting to think that something you've worked on will be flown in space.


    Pat Reiff

    New Member

    New Member

    10/21/2008 2:52 PM
    As a graduate student, I worked on data from the "CPLEE" instrument that was flown as part of the Apollo mission, but I didn't build it. Similarly I worked on data from the Atmosphere Explorer spacecraft when I was a Post-Doc. But for the Dynamics Explorer, Polar, Cluster and IMAGE spacecraft missions, I was part of the team that helped design the instrument(s) to solve the science questions. We try to make the instrument have enough resolution, field of view, data rate, energy range, etc., to answer the scientific questions that the mission is trying to address. Right now we are designing the instruments on the "Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission" ( that will try to understand a process called "magnetic reconnection". I'm part of the team that's trying to be sure that the instruments take the right kind of data, and the orbits are in the right places, so we can understand this important process that occurs near Earth as well as on the Sun. (It's a lot easier to study it here near Earth than on the Sun!). There is no greater thrill than to see a spacecraft launch that has a little of yourself aboard, even if it is just your ideas and your robots and not yourself. This picture is of the "IMAGE" spacecraft launching in 2000. it had a Rice logo on it. What a thrill! The folks in the picture all had Rice University connections (alumni, students, faculty) and worked on the spacecraft, its design, its data, and/or public outreach. I'm in the beige jacket near the middle.
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