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An out-of-this-world internship

September 1, 2017

Two ASU engineering students spend summer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on technology of tomorrow

Two Arizona State University engineering students with stars in their eyes spent the summer living the ultimate space lover’s dream: an internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

They built parts that will fly to Mars, glimpsed the goals and tech of tomorrow’s missions, celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Voyager mission, and viewed the solar eclipse from the Pasadena, California, campus with thousands of others working to take humanity into the solar system.

“It’s an amazing place,” said Nathan Barba, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering and a guest blogger for the Planetary Society. “It’s unlike anywhere I’ve worked.”

Barba and Robert “RJ” Amzler, a senior majoring in aerospace engineering, spent months at the birthplace of NASA. JPL is the leading U.S. center for robotic exploration of the solar system, with 19 spacecraft and 10 major instruments carrying out planetary, Earth science and space-based astronomy missions.

Amzler worked on engineering the bit carousel subsystem for the Mars 2020 Rover, which moves samples in and out of the rover. Interns normally don’t work on flight design.

“I spent two weeks designing a half-inch hole,” he said. “It’s crazy the amount of thought that goes into everything.”

Even though Amzler hasn’t finished earning his bachelor’s degree, he has now worked on four missions that will fly: two in low-Earth orbit, one to the moon and one to Mars.

The Mars 2020 Rover is heavily based on the Curiosity Rover. In space engineering terms, it has heritage. NASA likes systems that have been into space — “flown” — and proved themselves.

“I attended a two-hour-long lecture on ‘don’t change anything,’ ” Amzler said.

One thing that surprised Amzler was how much everything costs. A small ball bearing that might cost $10 can cost a few thousand dollars because it has to survive the vacuum of space, Martian dust and hundreds of other hazards. It also absolutely cannot fail.

“I knew what I was doing was going to Mars,” Amzler said.

JPL’s campus is extremely casual. The interns were the most formally dressed people there.

“It’s a lot more like a campus than I thought it would be,” Amzler said. “It had an almost Silicon Valley feel.”

A lot of people were working on the Europa mission. The mission is being planned for launch in the 2020s, arriving in the Jupiter system after a journey of several years to investigate the habitability of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

“Whether you’re developing a mission depends on how stressed you are,” Amzler said. The engineers were driven. Software coders worked longer hours but were more casual about it.

The atmosphere was inspiring, both students said. History is around every corner.

“It was cool being in the same place as all this historic stuff,” Amzler said.

Barba has always wanted to work at JPL. He didn’t know anyone there, but he drove over and attended its open house every summer and networked. He met his mentor, who sponsored his 14-week internship this year.

Barba got to sample a lot. “I got the wide breadth,” he said.

Much of what he worked on could not be disclosed. He worked in mission formulation, JPL’s wish list for future missions.

“I was kind of a fly on the wall,” he said.

He spent two days at a rapid version of the same thing. He worked on concepts that have no heritage, like a lander for an ocean planet. He helped engineer a sample collecting subsystem called an adaptive caching assembly. He worked on the science for a future mission. He also engineered parts on the Mars helicopter, which, again, he couldn’t discuss in detail, other than to say it’s exactly what it sounds like.

He jumped from project to project throughout the day. His mentor mapped out his workflow and meetings to maximize success.

The best part for Barba? He may become a permanent fixture on the JPL campus.

“I think so,” he said. “I had nine interviews.” They threw oddball engineering questions at him like how many Ping-Pong balls can fit in a 747.

His dream job? “Being on a team that discovers life on another planet.”

Barba’s advice to anyone working is to get a good mentor and to find out what the metrics are for success, then hit those marks.

It’s easy to get star-struck at a place like JPL, so stay focused on execution, “but don’t forget to take it all in and live in the moment,” Barba said.

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ASU professor wins PLuS Alliance prize for SolarSPELL innovation

SolarSPELL creator wins international award for portable digital library.
Laura Hosman's SolarSPELL device brings a suite of learning resources anywhere.
No Wi-Fi or power? No problem with SolarSPELL, designed for learning anywhere.
September 3, 2017

Laura Hosman's solar-powered digital library brings resources, educational opportunities to remote, off-grid communities

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2017, click here.

In a highly connected world where nearly everyone is just a text or tweet away, there still exist many remote, off-grid regions where communities don’t have access to information and resources that open up educational opportunities.

Arizona State University Assistant Professor Laura Hosman is working to change that with SolarSPELL, a portable, solar-powered digital library that comes with its own digital Wi-Fi hotspot, able to function without electricity or existing internet connectivity.

Her innovative device was awarded one of the inaugural PLuS Alliance Prizes this weekend at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit in London. The $50,000 prizes recognize research and education innovation.

The PLuS Alliance is a unique international collaboration between ASU, King’s College London and UNSW Sydney. Launched in February 2016, the PLuS Alliance enables research-led solutions to global challenges while expanding access to world-class learning.

“I've been working with students in project-based classes to come up with technologies that would be both useful and appropriate,” Hosman said. “It's been a process of continually simplifying technology to make it more relevant for people. Now, we have a library that can fit inside a backpack.”

ASU Assistant Professor Laura Hosman works with a local teacher in Somoa
ASU Assistant Professor Laura Hosman shows a Samoan teacher how to use the SolarSPELL digital library at a training in Samoa, which took place with both Peace Corps volunteers and their local counterpart teachers. Photo by Bruce Baikie

The SolarSPELL library is full of educational resources. The only thing needed to access the information is a laptop, smartphone or iPad.

Hosman was recognized in the Education Innovation category. UNSW Professor Veena Sahajwalla was awarded the Research Innovation award for her work in recycling science to enable global industries to safely utilize toxic and complex wastes as low-cost alternatives to virgin raw materials and fossil fuels.

“Dr. Hosman and Professor Sahajwalla are contemporaries in research and education innovation,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow. “They’re truly impacting their fields and bringing about a positive difference with proven global application. The level of competition for the inaugural PLuS Alliance Prize was awe-inspiring, and we’re already looking forward to the nominees for the 2018 Prize.”

The information in SolarSPELL is curated to include as much localized information as possible. This allows the device to teach things like science and mathematics, but also to preserve local indigenous knowledge.

Like a community library, it’s meant to be a hub for people of all ages, aligning with ASU’s mission of expanding access and serving communities.

“This project hits on a lot of ASU's charter aspirations,” said Hosman, who holds a joint appointment in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. “I'm all for engaging globally and providing access to those who don't have it.”

Hosman and ASU engineering students brought SolarSPELL to a handful of Pacific islands this summer, creating content specific to the region in addition to hands-on lesson plans. The trip also provided the ASU students with an eye-opening experience.

“Two of my students who traveled with me had never left Arizona before,” Hosman said. “These opportunities are always transformational for ASU students, and I love that aspect of it.”

Video by John Hebrank and Brandon Main

Judging the shortlisted PLuS Alliance Awards candidates from across the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia were six industry leaders including former LinkedIn Vice President Ellen Levy, now managing director of Silicon Valley Connect.

“Innovation in research and education is vital to advancing society in a positive direction, whether by addressing some of the biggest challenges our world faces today, or creating new impactful opportunities,” said Levy, who also will be co-chairing the ASU Innovative Network Council with Crow.

The panel included the three presidents of the PLuS Alliance universities, NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer Mary O’Kane and former Vice President of GE Medical Europe Timothy Irish.

Two additional awards recognized global excellence. Narayana Murthy, an Indian IT industrialist and co-founder of Infosys, received the PLuS Alliance Prize for Global Leadership, and CRISPR researcher Francisco Mojica won the PLuS Alliance Prize for Global Innovation.


Top photo: Assistant Professor Laura Hosman has traveled with ASU students to a number of Pacific Islands (including Vanuatu, pictured), where they worked with Peace Corps volunteers on training and implementation of the SolarSPELL digital library. Photo by Bruce Baikie

Connor Pelton

Communications Writer , ASU Now