Students work with NASA to develop star-tracking telescope

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A. Sue Weisler

Assistant Physics Professor Michael Zemcov, center, works with BS/MS electrical engineering majors Kevin Kruse, left, and Benjamin Bonder in the Center for Detectors.

A team of RIT undergraduates is on a mission to build a cryogenic star-tracking telescope for NASA.

RIT won $200,000 from NASA’s Undergraduate Student Instrument Project Flight Research Opportunity program to build a “compass” for sounding rockets using a new imaging sensor technology. Following a successful initial flight, the system will fly on a NASA experiment to help point larger telescopes measuring extragalactic light from the cosmic infrared background.

“We proposed to NASA to have an undergrad team build a prototype that will fly on a technology demonstration rocket and then learn from that to build a second improved one for the science payload,” said Michael Zemcov, assistant professor in RIT’s School of Physics and Astronomy and leader of the Cryogenic Star Tracking Attitude Regulation System project.

A star tracker is a telescope with a camera carried in the payload of a sounding rocket that uses the positions of stars to orient the vehicle. Sounding rockets are cousins of military ordnance, like surface-to-air missiles, which fly to an altitude of approximately 200 miles and are an affordable way to conduct science experiments in space.

“Sounding rockets are suborbital,” said Zemcov, a member of RIT’s Center for Detectors and the Future Photon Initiative. “They basically go straight up and straight back down. They go up as high, or higher, than the space station.”

The new sensor—a metal oxide semiconductor or CMOS detector—is a step toward realizing a fully cryogenic optical detector, Zemcov said. Detectors that work at the coldest temperatures promise to reduce “noise” in NASA’s deep-space cameras.

The student team brings the specialty of several disciplines to the project. Everyone has a job: Kevin Kruse, a fifth-year BS/MS electrical engineering major from Port Jefferson Station, N.Y., is the electrical engineer and team leader; Chris Pape, a third-year student in the BS/MS program in mechanical engineering technology/mechanical and manufacturing systems integration from Douglassville, Pa., is the mechanical engineer; Benjamin Bonder, a fifth-year BS/MS electrical engineering major from Geneva, N.Y., is the computer engineer; Poppy Immel, a fifth-year BS/MS dual-degree major in computational mathematics and computer science from Castleton, Vt., is the computer scientist; Matthew Delfavero, a third-year physics major from Annapolis, Md., is the physicist; and Hyun Won, a fourth-year international business student born in South Korea but who grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., is the project manager. Most of the students are using the project as co-op experience.

The team’s mentors are Zemcov; Dorian Patru, professor of electrical engineering; and Chi Nguyen, a second-year Ph.D. student in the astrophysical sciences and technology program from Vietnam.

“The aim is to control this sensor and make it work at cold temperatures,” Kruse said. “Then we’ll launch it into space to take pictures. A future mission would involve us guiding the rocket using the images we take.”

Their star-tracker will fly in a technology demonstration payload with experiments from other universities and NASA laboratories. The rocket will launch this December from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va.