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IN THE LAB: Overcoming the ‘space factor’

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Careful coding keeps satellites on the job watching for earthly detonations

With Erin Quinn, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Whenever an instrument is sent into space, worries abound. As if the launch were not risky enough (with the threat of explosion on the launch pad or the extreme vibrations shaking parts loose), a host of other threats emerge once the spacecraft safely reaches orbit. Extreme temperatures and high radiation levels can easily damage parts and result in malfunction. Then there is the satellite’s great distance from Earth. If there is a problem, it cannot be recalled for a quick fix. So, it is critical that everything work properly before it makes its dramatic ascension into space.

That is where software developers like Erin Quinn come in. Quinn works in Space Data Science and Systems group on the ground support equipment for the Space and Atmospheric Burst Reporting System (SABRS), one of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s satellite-borne treaty-monitoring payloads. More than 50 years ago, Los Alamos and the forerunner to the Department of Energy supported the first satellites to detect nuclear explosions in the atmosphere or space. This early capability was an essential element in the first treaty that regulated nuclear weapons tests. The first SABRS payload was launched in 2012 and SABRS-2 was successfully launched after that.

Soon after launch, Quinn was part of a team tasked with conducting on-orbit testing of communications between the payload and the ground.

“I worked with the principal investigators of the various instruments and exercised the various capabilities of each instrument,” she said.

The goal? To make sure everything worked exactly as it was intended.

“It was very intense. We had a lot of really long days.”

But the result was just what they hoped for: seamless.

‘Something that matters’

The SABRS payload is designed to replace the neutron, gamma-ray and particle detectors fielded on Defense Support Program satellites in the 1970s through the 1990s. It augments the optical, radio frequency, x-ray, and particle sensors of the Global Burst Detector (GBD) payload, which is currently fielded on U.S. Air Force GPS satellites.

The SABRS and GBD Payloads make up the sensing part of the United States Nuclear Detonation Detection System, which monitors the entire globe, from the surface of the earth out to deep space, for nuclear detonations.

Quinn finds the work rewarding “because it’s about people’s safety,” she said.

“It’s satisfying because you’re looking at the bigger picture. You are part of something that matters. You’re not just creating software for a new game app on someone’s phone. You’re doing something that’s crucial.” She added with a laugh, “and it’s cool because it involves space.”

“Space is tricky”

But again, the space factor is also what makes the job particularly challenging.

“Everything you deal with in space is tricky,” she said. “It’s not like any other job. There are larger ramifications if your code fails. It’s much more difficult to make edits.”

Even though the equipment that Quinn develops code for is Earth-bound, because it’s communicating with a space-based machine, the stakes are still high.

“The ground system takes the data from the satellite, processes it, and sends it to displays. If there’s a bug between the ground software and the satellite, you’ve got a big problem,” she said.

Los Alamos is currently building the third SABRS payload, which is scheduled to launch in 2019 to complement the other SABRS and GBD payloads. So, the SABRS work continues – which is just fine with Quinn.

Erin Quinn is a software developer in the Space Data Systems and Science.