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UCLA Campus Report: Undergrads are First to Build a Satellite on Campus, More

This week’s news focuses on undergrads who are the first to build an entire satellite on campus, executive business students with a plan to save NATO millions in Afghanistan and how UCLA is contributing to the building of the world's most advanced telescope in Hawaii.

Road flooded on campus
Road flooded on campus

An occasional report from around campus that recognizes that UCLA is a school with a world-class reputation for research and innovation and whose people make real impact on the real world:

This week’s news focuses on undergrads who are the first to build an entire satellite on campus, executive business students with a plan to save NATO millions in Afghanistan and how UCLA is contributing to the building of the world's most advanced telescope in Hawaii.

UCLA undergrads are first to build an entire satellite on campus

Dozens of students from majors across campus have worked thousands of hours on space project to launch in 2016-17

To conduct research on space weather, an enterprising group of UCLA undergraduates is manufacturing the first satellite built entirely on the UCLA campus.

The Electron Loss and Fields Investigation CubeSat, or ELFIN, is a tiny satellite the size of a loaf of bread that still packs the scientific punch of significantly larger, more expensive satellites. When launched, ELFIN will determine how solar wind particles and radiation behave in Earth’s environment, a topic of increasing concern because magnetic storms can wreak havoc on space infrastructure like GPS, communication and weather satellites, and even damage the electrical grid here on Earth.

"With the advent of space tourism and the increased reliance on satellites, understanding space weather is becoming increasingly important to our society," said Vassilis Angelopoulos, a professor in the UCLA Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences and ELFIN principal investigator. "We need to study the electron loss process to assemble the full picture of how space radiation is driven by solar particles."

From the beginning, ELFIN had only scant internal funding, and the outlook for completion was unclear.

In spite of this uncertainty, a team of several dozen intrepid undergraduate students took on the project as their own, collectively putting in thousands of hours as a labor of love, developing and testing the satellite’s subsystems with the hope that the project would someday be fully funded.

After three years of diligent work and patience, the tide finally turned in 2013 when the U.S. Air Force awarded the team a $110,000 grant to continue development and buy much-needed parts. Last February, the opportunity to achieve their goal became even more real for these space Bruins when NASA’s CubeSat Initiative and the Low-Cost Access to Space program guaranteed them a launch spot.

Finally on May 23, the team was awarded $1.2 million jointly from NASA and the National Science Foundation, ensuring enough funding to put the space-qualified hardware in orbit and to operate it for six months from the UCLA Mission Operations Center, to be located on campus.

A collaboration between the Aerospace Corporation and UCLA’s departments of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences; Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE); and Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, ELFIN will not only benefit UCLA students, who will have the opportunity to work on a real-world space program, but will also resolve a critical space physics question.

"ELFIN will train tomorrow’s leaders in space science and engineering," said Richard Wirz, a professor in the UCLA Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and a mission co-investigator. "This educational experience enables students to apply what they learn in the classroom in a hands-on, team setting and do whatever it takes to reach a scientifically compelling and challenging goal."

Drew Turner, an associate researcher in Earth, planetary and space sciences, noted that a quick-turnaround mission like this will give students the rare opportunity to see a project from conception to completion.

"The ELFIN experience is unusual in comparison to an industry that typically deals with one-ton satellites that take up to 10 years to build by a veritable army of engineers," Turner said. "This will be an invaluable, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our students — a ride to space they will never forget!"

The satellite is tentatively scheduled for launch in late 2016 or early 2017 as a secondary payload (similar to carpooling), which greatly reduces the cost of reaching space. From its polar orbit approximately 370 miles overhead, ELFIN will determine how high-energy electrons in Earth’s radiation belt (located roughly 25,000 miles above the equator) are scattered out of their cyclical orbits by naturally occurring ultra-low-frequency electromagnetic waves.

Anderson students devise plan to save NATO millions in Afghanistan

One recommendation alone could save NATO as much as $50 million annually

Coming up with a cost-cutting plan to save NATO millions of dollars may seem daunting. But not for a team of five students enrolled in the Executive M.B.A. Program (EMBA) at the Anderson School who were tasked with developing an in-depth strategic business plan for the NATO Air Training Command in Afghanistan.

That’s because this intrepid team included a Navy fighter pilot, a former infantry Marine, a U.S. Air Force pilot, a former member of the Israeli army — and a medical device engineer. These students jumped at the chance to help the NATO command group in Afghanistan with this mission: set the conditions for a professional, fully independent and operationally capable Afghan Air Force that meets the security requirements of Afghanistan today and tomorrow.

Their task was just one of the complex projects run through EMBA's Strategic Management Research (SMR) Program which provides organizations around the world with an opportunity to engage a consulting team of experienced professionals who are UCLA Anderson EMBA students. NATO was one of 13 organizations and companies that each worked with teams of five students who were charged with finding solutions to diverse strategic business challenges. Typically, students have an average of 14 years professional experience and collectively contribute an estimated 2,000 hours to the strategic plan for each company.

The task for this particular group of students involved finding ways for the NATO Air Training Command in Afghanistan (NATC-A) to cut costs, increase training productivity and improve the current contract procurement process.

The bottom line: Create a sustainable cost structure for the Afghan Air Force by reducing operating costs $50 million to $150 million annually without sacrificing the organization’s ability to train its personnel and operate effectively. All of this amid complicating factors that include illiteracy, lack of qualified Afghan Air Force instructors, fiscal constraints, operating in a war zone and reduced support from the international community. And the task came with a deadline — a 2014 implementation target date.

NATC-A’s commander Brigadier General John Michel, a senior US Air Force officer with a track record for successfully leading large-scale, institutional-improvement efforts, determined that this project proposed a set of "business problems." Following a discussion with Anderson student and former Air Force pilot Andreas Neuman, Michel turned to UCLA Anderson as a means of tapping thought leadership and perspectives from more places "than the deep recesses of government," Michel said.

"A business school is a great place to go to get fresh ideas and unique perspectives," Michel observed. "Often, organizations fail to explore opportunities and seek solutions outside their immediate span of control or influence. Our reaching out to the Anderson School and creating what we playfully term ‘a coalition of the unlikely’ enabled us to bring new talent, relevant experience and innovative insights into our decision space," he added.

Construction to begin in Hawaii on world's most advanced telescope

With the recent approval of a sublease by Hawaii's Board of Land and Natural Resources, initial construction on the Thirty Meter Telescope — destined to be the most advanced and powerful optical telescope in the world — can now begin later this year.

The board's final go-ahead, received July 25, moves the University of California and UCLA a step closer to peering deeper into the cosmos than ever before.

Work on the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), named for its 30-meter primary mirror — three times the diameter of the largest existing telescopes — will take place atop Hawaii's dormant Mauna Kea volcano. The TMT's scientific operations are slated to start in 2022.

Researchers in the UCLA College will play a significant role in the development and use of the TMT, which will enable astronomers to study stars and other objects throughout our solar system, the Milky Way and neighboring galaxies, and galaxies forming at the very edge of the observable universe, near the beginning of time.

The project is a collaboration among universities in the United States and institutions in Canada, China, India and Japan, with major funding provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Read more about the state-of-the-science instruments UCLA scientists like James Larkin and Ian S. McLean will be creating for the TMT and how the telescope will allow UCLA astronomers like Andrea Ghez to delve into the mysteries of black holes.