Computer Science Faculty Member Recounts Her Research Experience with NASA
After the Apollo program that sent humans to the Moon in the 60’s and early 70’s, NASA put their primary focus on space stations and shuttle programs for three decades. Although the space shuttle program has ended, scientific discoveries through the International Space Station are continuing. NASA is now embarking on another bold exploration mission: sending humans to Mars.
Baek-Young Choi, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is a faculty fellow at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. During the summer of 2017 she spent time researching wireless communication methods.
Here’s an account of her experience at NASA:
What are your research interests?
My interests lie in the broad area of algorithms and systems development for diverse types of communication networks and cloud computing. My recent research has been focused on wireless communication methods for Internet-of-Things (IoT) applications and Software-Defined Networking. I’m working to figure out how to make all these physical devices talk to each other in a computing space.
I imagine 10 years ago very few of you would have guessed we could one day talk to our watches and send a message to our moms, but that is happening now, called the internet of things – taking ordinary objects and making them extraordinary through connectivity.
How do your interests connect to your research at NASA?
At NASA I am working on reliable communication schemes for wireless sensors around spacecraft, or space habitats, in the Electronic Systems Branch of the Space Systems Department. Basically, I help figure out how a sensor on one side of the spacecraft collects and relays information to another side of the spacecraft. Unlike earth, where wireless technology works seamlessly, space creates a unique environment with unique needs.
What are some of the unique needs space creates?
There are numerous needs for sensing in space applications, such as temperature, humidity, pressure and radiation, air and water quality, and the crew’s vital signs.
The benefits of wireless sensors include flexible placement, changes in location and number of sensors, enabled data gathering from a challenging area, faster deployment, and reduced weight of the spacecraft. However, besides the inevitable long-range communication with the Earth, wireless technology has not been deployed much in space systems. That is because the space environment poses unique and extreme challenges such as radiation from solar events and cosmic rays, extreme temperatures depending on its location relative to the Sun and the lack of the insulating atmosphere of the Earth.
In the midst of the harsh operational environment in space, reliability is a primary concern of NASA’s missions, like the well-known quote, “Failure is not an option!” My reliable communication scheme was shaped while trying to understand the space environment and the physics of wireless communication as well as from previous research experiences in IoT and software-defined approach.
What would you say is a major highlight of your NASA experience?
This past summer was a truly enriching experience for me. In addition to meeting and working with people with similar research tracks, I was privileged to meet many NASA scientists and engineers from various unique fields.
I met rocket scientists who develop propulsion systems; chemical engineers who turn urine into drinkable water; mechanical engineers who build gigantic space vehicle modules; physicists who design solar sailing satellites; and various scientists who analyze and study the data collected from space.
I find NASA to be an incredible interdisciplinary organization where people from all walks of science and engineering imaginable come together for massive and complex missions. Most of all, I am impressed by their openness and their passion for the work.
How might this experience play into your future work?
Prior to my work with NASA, I focused on pretty earthly matters. Now, I feel I am very deep in space mode. For instance, I named my family vehicles SLS and Orion after NASA’s space launch vehicle and spacecraft, respectively, which are under development for its journey to Mars.
I believe this is a particularly exciting time for technologists as the mission requires overcoming unprecedented challenges. I look forward to continuing to work with them and involving my students in investigating the technical issues that NASA faces.