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Labonte has "awesome" time with internship at robotics academy
Clockwise from top left, Lonnie gets ready to get into the cockpit of an F-18; group shot in front of the Atlantis Shuttle; group shot in front of Curiosity, the twin of the Rover that recently landed on Mars; Lonnie stands in from of the Apollo 16 capsule.
RUMFORD -- About the time that the Martian rover was landing on the red planet, Lonnie Labonte was working as a research associate with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as an intern for their robotics academy.
Prior to starting his senior year as an Electrical & Computer Engineering major at the Univ. of Maine at Orono, Labonte accepted an invitation for a 10-week internship at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, AL, where the nation's journey to space began more than a half-century ago. The dean's list student was one of 12 selected nationally in a competitive process to earn an internship.
"I have had one of the most exciting summers of my life here at MSFC and have learned so much from my research and experiences," Labonte noted, adding that because of this experience, "I'm leaning towards the space side of stuff now, now that I've seen it's possible and I can do it and learned so much about it."
He also hopes this internship will also help to open some doors in this area. "A lot of private space companies know about this robitics academy group and they really like to see that on a resume, so I think that'll take me far."
His was a summer filled with activity, engineering, learning and excitement while working as a part of a team of three to do the initial designs of a solar sail space craft. The space craft was named Feathersail-3 (FS3).
Solar sails (also called light sails or photon sails) are a form of spacecraft propulsion using the radiation pressure (also called solar pressure) of light from a star to push large ultra-thin mirrors to high speeds. Light sails could also be driven by energy beams that extend their range of operations, which, strictly, is beam sailing rather than solar sailing.
Solar sail craft offer the possibility of low-cost operations combined with long operating lifetimes. Since they have few moving parts and use no propellant, they can potentially be used numerous times for delivery of payloads.
"My principal investigator (Dean Alhorn) pretty much determine our roles. He made me the avionics and power guy. We had another guy who was mission design; he was a graduate student in aerospace from the Univ. of Alabama-Huntsville; and another from Georgia Tech, who was structures and mechanisms, designing the actual shapes of the satellites. We all shared an office and worked pretty well together," said Labonte.
"I learned a lot of stuff from my principal investigator; he's a smart guy. He taught me a lot about communication between satellites; I really didn't know much about space before I went there. I knew a little bit but I've learned so much. I learned more about space than electrical engineering probably. But it was an awesome experience," he said.
Labonte said that right now, the project he work on is a concept design. "If my principal investigator wants to complete it, he would probably make minor changes, depending upon what he wants to do. But he could put in funding for it and actually design this."
This team worked to advance the concept. "We made Feathersail3, which is like the third version of this solar sail. They've all had different designs, so they have all been different. Ours was the smallest one and I would say the most realistic one," said Labonte.
He said there's a satellite up in orbit now called FASTSAT, and it's planning to be in orbit for 85 years. It will probably disable before then. "There's an international rule that if you have a satellite up there for longer than 25 years, you have to have like a waiver for it. They have a waiver for it, but they don't want it up there for that long. So they're trying to come up with ways to deorbit it quicker.
The sail is 40 square meters in size, but it comes out of a 6ucube set which is 10 centimeters by 20 cm by 30 cm.
"Getting started was a little bit difficult. I wasn't familiar with all the terminology of space. I didn't know anything about orbits or how those worked. I didn't even know how fast things orbit," said Labonte.
Ten weeks was not much time for this endeavor. We only worked generally Monday through Thursday and sometimes half days on Friday, depending upon what we were doing that weekend.
Work was an eight-hour day; basically sitting in an office doing research. "It was definitely worthwhile. I learned a lot."
"When we first started, he (Alhorn) basically told us, 'Go!' and we were all basically working on structures and mechanisms at this point to try to figure out how we want the sail to deploy. Pretty much all our designs involved a deployable boom system. It has metal booms that's actually like a reverse tape measure. So instead of coiling in, they actually shoot out and have the sail already attached to them. So when they shoot out, the sail is deployed," he said.
"One of the main things about this project is that a solar sail has never been used in low earth orbit. We're using it to raise the orbit. We sent it out at 525 kilometers. We actually use the propulsion from the sun to raise the orbit to 700 kilometers to where that other satellite is to collapse around it and take it down. The project is about proving that a solar sail can raise its own orbit without propulsion systems," said Labonte.
"Everything works together conceptually, and I don't see why it wouldn't. But it hasn't been disigned yet. So they would definitely have to be changes," he noted.
Labonte said Alhorn is a very good teacher. He sent up NASA's first solar sail, and only one so far.
As far as their work, he said Alhorn liked their deployment system. "He hadn't come up with one that was so space saving. We had quite of room left over for additional electronics or whatever."
Because Alhorn is involved in other projects, he wanted interns to work to advance this project so that one day he might decide to implement it.
There were four teams in the robotics academy, all working in teams of three on different projects. "Ours was actually the only satellite. Theirs was mostly about testing equipment," said Labonte.
During the last part of the internship, the Martian Rover landed on Mars. At Marshall, they were holding some kind of sleepover thing for whoever wanted to watch Curiosity land on the big screen. "I didn't get to go. I believe they had that at pretty much every NASA center."
Regarding the selection of where Curiosity landed, Labonte said, "It actually landed inside the biggest crater on Mars. There is a six-kilometer mountain inside the crator that was caused by the crator. The rock is layered, kind of like the Grand Canyon, so that you can see the history of Mars.
"Once they got it there, there's so many lines of code, they had to shut it down. They had to reprogram it to go from landing mode to Mars mode. They could reprogram it all the way from here," he said.
Labonte said his education at the Univ. of Maine prepared him well for this internship. As far as his education at Mountain Valley (Class of 2009), he said, "I would say the math program here is very good. The science program however could have prepared me more, physics and stuff."
As far as local teachers, he noted in particular his calculus teacher, Lisa Russell, who prepared him well for the math he would see in college.
Internship also included lectures and activities
by Lonnie Labonte
This internship made my summer amazing, I am so fortunate to receive this opportunity and to have been able to experience everything I did this summer. It wasn’t only the trips that were amazing; it was also the work I was able to do and the people I met. I gained experience in my field as an electrical engineer and learned so much about aerospace engineering that I did not know before. This summer was one that I will never forget and would like to thank the Maine Space Grant Consortium along with Alabama Space Grant Consortium and NASA Marshall Space Flight Center for this amazing opportunity.
Lectures and presentations
I was given the opportunity to attend many lectures and presentations over the summer, I learned a great deal from these lectures and the summer wouldn’t have been the same without them. My personal favorite was a presentation we received from Barbara Cohen about the current and future Mars Rovers. I also enjoyed Scott Bolden’s lecture on his project to send a satellite to Jupiter, this project was called Juno. Ricky Howard also gave a very informative presentation on robots. All the presentations were worth attending and educational.
I enjoyed Barbara Cohen’s talk about all the Mars Rovers the most mainly because of the topic. Ever since I was young I enjoyed talking and learning about Mars. Barbara went into detail to describe the mission plans of Spirit and Opportunity, the two identical rovers sent in 2003. She described how both rovers lasted much longer than they were initially designed to last. Each rover was designed to last 90 sols (A sol is a day on Mars), Spirit lasted over 2,500 sols before it got stuck and the mission ended and opportunity has lasted over 3000 sols and is still in operation today. Barbara showed us where on mars each rover was located and where each has traveled. She also talked about Curiosity rover which is on its way to Mars and is planning to land in a small elliptical area in Gale crater next to the Martian mountain of Mount Sharp. She explained that this rover isn’t powered by solar power but by nuclear power so it could last a very long time.
Scott Bolden’s presentation on his Juno satellite was very interesting. Juno is a satellite currently in route for Jupiter. When Juno arrives at Jupiter it will assume an elliptical orbit around Jupiter. It will be responsible for measuring Jupiter’s gravity field and will try to figure out what the core of Jupiter is made of and help solve of the puzzle of how our solar system was created. Scott described how Juno is the first satellite that uses solar power out past the orbit of Mars. Juno is equipped with three very large arrays of solar panels. Juno will spiral through space until it is in orbit with Jupiter it will collect valuable data from Jupiter and a few of its moons.
Ricky Howard’s presentation on robots was very interesting and entertaining. He showed us many different types of robots and many of them I had never seen before. It opened my eyes to technology that is being developed all around the world and showed me what is really possible with robotics.
All of the presentations I attended this summer were very valuable and worth attending I am so grateful for these opportunities and would like to thank all of the presenters who used their time to help educate our group of NASA interns.
The extracurricular activities selected this year by our operations manager were excellent and valuable to my education. Although a few of the activities were solely for fun they added to the experience I gained and usually included team building for our academy. We were so lucky to take a funded trip to Cape Canaveral, Florida and another funded trip to Los Angeles, California. On top of that I went sky diving, white water rafting and attended Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. The activities I participated in made my summer very enjoyable and unique, it was truly like no other summer I have had.
The trip I enjoyed most was the California trip, I was able to tour so many different places all while traveling to a place I had never even been close to before. I was able to tour two NASA centers Dryden and JPL and was able to see SOFIA and actually go inside and see the telescope. SOFIA is a telescope plane that flies to high altitudes to view distant stars and planets. I was also able to see many different planes and Curiosity’s twin rover and its simulation rover to simulate the weight of curiosity on Mars here on Earth. I was also able to do a little sightseeing while in California; I visited Hollywood and Santa Monica Beach and Pier. California was amazing trip the only thing that I wish was different was the amount of time spent there. I would have liked to have an entire week there, but the time I spent there was amazing.
The Florida trip was very enjoyable because I had a little more free time then I did in California. In Florida I visited Cocoa Beach, Kennedy Space Center and Universal Studios. Kennedy Space Center was an amazing visit. I was able to see Atlantis roll over from the OPF to the VAB and take pictures with it as well. This was a truly exciting event for me. I spent a day on Cocoa Beach where I learned how to surf and had an amazing time with the rest of the Robotics Academy. Universal Studios was also very exciting, they had exciting roller coasters and really neat virtual reality rides like the Harry Potter Ride. Florida was a bit more relaxed then California but still a very exciting trip.
Sky diving was one of the best activities I participated in this summer, and if it weren’t so expensive I would go all the time. I had been sky diving once before, but I did a tandem jump the first time, meaning I would be strapped to a professional sky diver and they would do all the work. This time I decided to the accelerated free fall where I was able to learn how to do it myself and control the parachute. Jumping without someone strapped to me was much different and gave me a greater adrenaline rush. I would love to go sky diving again as soon as I can get the money too.
All the activities I participated in this summer were very exciting and thrilling. I enjoyed both of the trips as well as sky diving, space camp and white water rafting. I was also able to go ice skating this summer, which being from Maine I never thought I would do in Alabama.