Students building satellite to help NASA learn more about solar flares

June 27, 2012

Solar flares are nothing to be ignored. They can be signs of the formation of gigantic solar storms that could propel powerful electromagnetic bursts of charged particles from the Sun to collide with our planet’s magnetic field.

The result might be widespread electrical power blackouts across the globe. Large swaths of the wired world would instantly become unwired. Collateral damage could be severe enough to put large segments of the population at risk of being without some life-sustaining resources. Sun Devil Satellite Download Full Image

Avoiding such catastrophe may depend in large part on better understanding solar flare behavior and increasing the ability to forecast when flares might signal impending solar superstorms that could have an impact on Earth.

A group of Arizona State University engineering and business students hope to play a role in advancing knowledge about solar flares.

Their Sun Devil Satellite 1 project is aimed at providing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration a small satellite equipped with components designed to help study flares during their formative stages.

Preparing for launch

The venture began in the summer of 2009 after Aaron Goldstein – then a freshman beginning studies in aerospace engineering and aeronautics in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering – landed an internship in the satellite systems engineering department of General Dynamics corporation.

His experience there motivated him to organize some fellow undergraduates to enter a competition sponsored by the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics.  They designed a satellite mission to monitor space weather effects on the Earth’s magnetic field.

The team didn’t win the competition but it did develop a cost-effective satellite design proposal that eventually would be the basis for a joint venture with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Facility.

A year later, at the start of the fall 2010 semester, Goldstein again gathered fellow students to organize the Sun Devil Satellite Laboratory. Within several months they attracted the attention of a solar science research team at NASA’s Goddard center with their ideas for an earth-imaging satellite. That in turn led to a new effort, the Sun Devil Satellite 1 mission focusing on observation of the Sun.

The mission team has since completed successful preliminary NASA design reviews and is planning to have a satellite built in time for a projected 2015 launch.

The group is developing the Flare Initiation Doppler Imager as the main instrument to be attached to the roughly nine-pound satellite, and is building the platform on which the imager will operate.

If it works as planned, the imager will take rapid-fire photos of the Sun to capture solar flares as they emerge. The data it collects could aid research to predict the intensity of flares and forecast potential impacts on the Earth.

Procuring resources

The project has been not only an engineering effort but a lesson in assembling the resources necessary to sustain an ambitious research and technology development endeavor.

The students have had to embark on some business networking to secure the necessary technology industry support.

Space and rocket systems company Orbital Sciences provided some high-precision instruments for testing satellite components, and mentoring from company engineers.

The Microchip company donated electronic components. SolidWorks provided computer-aided design software.  Analytic Graphics (AGI) donated spacecraft design software.

The team’s progress and enthusiasm prompted engineering schools’ administrators and faculty to help find the students lab space and provide mentoring.

Those benefactors included Paul Johnson, dean of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, associate dean of student and academics affairs James Collofello, along with Kyle Squires, director of the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy and Valana Wells, chair of the mechanical and aerospace engineering program.

Additional guidance came from assistant professor Christopher Groppi and professor Srikanth Saripalli in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Support also came through Goldstein’s NASA Space Grant, part of a program that provides paid internships for qualified students pursuing careers in science and engineering fields.

“It’s kind of remarkable what we’re accomplishing, considering it started with a small group of people who just thought it might be interesting to try to build a little satellite,” he says.

Facing real-world challenges

Goldstein’s first student internship with General Dynamics turned into an internship with Orbital Sciences when in 2010 Orbital acquired the General Dynamics department in which he was interning.

He continued the internship at Orbital throughout his undergraduate years at ASU, and after graduation this spring was hired full time to work in the company’s systems engineering department, supporting its satellite technology operations.

Goldstein wants to use his experience in satellite and electronics design to someday start his own aerospace and electrical engineering design company.

Since the start of the Sun Devil Satellite 1 project, he estimates that more than 70 ASU engineering students have made at least some small contribution to the effort, but a group of 12 have been the prime movers.

One of them, senior aerospace engineering major Christopher Kady, says the satellite lab has provided him and fellow project members with invaluable experience in applying classroom lessons to real-world engineering challenges.

Kady is leading work on the satellite’s attitude-control subsystem, which enables the satellite to rotate in space and position itself appropriately to view its target – in this case, the Sun.

Kady and Goldstein exhibited the lab’s work on the system earlier this year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Interplanetary CubeSat Workshop. (A CubeSat is a miniature satellite designed to gather research data in space.)

Goldstein plans to stay on with the project as its primary industry adviser at least until the Satellite 1 launch by NASA.

By that time, he says he hopes the Sun Devil Satellite Laboratory will be taking on new challenges and establishing ASU as a center of student-led satellite research and development.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Phoenix-area home prices continue to soar

June 27, 2012

Phoenix-area home prices have been zooming up for months, and the streak continued in May. However, a new report from the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University takes a closer look at the short supply of available houses, an increase in foreclosures, and a possible leveling off of skyrocketing prices this summer.

The report on Maricopa and Pinal counties reveals: Mike Orr Download Full Image

• The median single-family home price went up more than 32 percent from May 2011 to May 2012.

• The overall housing supply dropped by 50 percent in the same time frame.

• The number of completed foreclosures of single-family homes and condos combined went up 18 percent from April to May.

The median single-family home price jumped 32.4 percent from May 2011 to May 2012. It went from $111,000 up to $147,000. At the same time, the median townhouse/condo price soared 37.3 percent, from $69,900 to $96,000, and the average price per-square-foot shot up more than 22 percent. Prices have been increasing since they reached a low point in September 2011.

The report’s author, Mike Orr, says high demand and low supply remain the dominant factors in the Phoenix-area housing market. For example, the number of active listings for single-family homes without a contract in the greater Phoenix area was down to 8,550 as of June 1. Fierce competition for available homes has continued to push prices up.

“Most houses below $250,000 priced realistically are attracting large numbers of offers in a short time, and many exceed the asking price,” says Orr, director of the Center for Real Estate Theory and Practice at the W. P. Carey School of Business. “We recently saw a Chandler home get 84 offers and a Glendale home receive 95. The Glendale house closed within four weeks for 17 percent above asking price. Needless to say, this is not something we would see in a normal market.”

The amount of overall sales activity is down, due to the short supply. The number of single-family home sales fell 5.8 percent compared to last May. Orr says things are especially quiet in the luxury and active-adult sectors of the market, where there’s less demand. But new-home sales are up 57 percent over last May, as buyers look for alternatives to the intense competition for existing homes under $250,000.

Orr says, “Contractors are trying to keep up with the new construction demand by supplementing a small skilled labor pool. They’re attempting to lure away competitors’ employees with higher pay and to attract back foremen who’ve gone on to other housing markets or industries.”

Investors are also playing an influential role in the area. In May, almost 28 percent of home purchases were made by investors. Orr says the average area home buyer faces an uphill battle against those offering all cash, instead of a financed offer requiring an appraisal. He does believe, though, that things are about to calm down somewhat.

“Prices gained further strength over the last month, but I suspect they cannot continue to rise at the extremely fast rate we experienced this spring,” says Orr. “This rate can’t be sustained long term, and the most likely time for prices to stabilize is during the hot summer months of June through September.”

At the same time, foreclosures are unfortunately going up in the area. The new report shows completed foreclosures of single-family homes and townhome/condos combined went up 18 percent from April to May this year. However, Orr doesn’t see this as reason to worry yet.

“Completed foreclosures were still down 52 percent year-over-year in May,” he explains. “Since the signing of a legal agreement between the states and five of the nation’s largest lenders, we have seen a slight uptick in the rate of foreclosure notices, but we are still a long way below the peak levels of March 2009.”

The areas of the Valley most affected by the foreclosure crisis are now seeing the biggest surge in prices. For example, El Mirage, Maricopa, San Tan Valley, Glendale and Apache Junction are doing much better. The areas least affected by foreclosures have seen prices improving slowest. Still, some are moving into positive territory, such as Cave Creek, Fountain Hills and Sun City. The only areas still showing a decline in average prices per-square-foot over the past year are Eloy, Paradise Valley, Rio Verde, Sun City West and Sun Lakes.

Orr’s full report, including statistics, charts and a breakdown by different areas of the Valley, can be viewed at More analysis is also available from knowWPCarey, the business school’s online resource and newsletter, at