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  • Photo Tyler Schmitt

    March 27, 2017

    Researching the Software behind Satellites

    For Tyler Schmitt ‘17, creating coding for satellites in space all comes down to the right software.

    Schmitt was recently published in the International Journal of Science and Applied Information Technology for research he performed with Dr. Ronald Marsh, Chair of the Department of Computer Science at the University of North Dakota. Receiving a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Department of Defense, Schmitt spent ten weeks over the summer working with the Open Prototype for Educational Nanosats (OPEN) program research team under Dr. Marsh.

    Schmitt’s research involved developing software for the University’s CubeSat, OpenOrbiter. According to NASA, a CubeSat is a small satellite weighing under three pounds used for technology demonstration, scientific research, and educational purposes. This CubeSat project requires coordinating multiple orbiting CubeSats to remain at specific distances from each other. Once in place, the CubeSats would help determine distances to other objects in space using cameras installed on each satellite and a code written by Schmitt and Dr. Marsh.  

    Using the cameras on each CubeSat, Schmitt used the principles underlying Fourier Optics— determining an object’s distance by using two different points of view—and performed a Fourier transform with images taken from each camera. Or, as he explains: “We’re modelling how our own eyes work.” He realized that in order to capture larger distances, he would need to make appropriate modifications to the computer program to fully capture these calculations and perform the Fourier transform. From these changes, Schmitt and Dr. Marsh developed two formulas to be used for further modelling.

    With publication in the International Journal of Science and Applied Information Technology, Schmitt and Dr. Marsh provide a “proof of concept.” Their research will guide the Fourier transform application when OPEN Orbiter is launched into space by the International Space Station in NASA’s upcoming rounds of its Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) Missions.  

    For Schmitt, a computer science major and mathematics minor, much of the physics, and even some of the technical aspects of creating the coding, were entirely new to him. “I was working in a program language that I had never worked in before, so that was probably the hardest part for me—learning all of the unknowns to start with,” he says. “Once I got that down, I could navigate more of the math behind it.” Identifying where he needed help ultimately transformed his research. “Having a firm understanding of what you don’t understand is so important. It lets you ask specific questions and that benefits everybody,” he says. “I think people really respect when you can say you don’t understand something; it also takes a lot of problem-solving to understand what you don’t understand.”

    Translating his problem-solving skills, something familiar to him in the computer science discipline, was a key component in navigating his interdisciplinary research. “Picking up what you do understand and starting from that, and just getting little things working—taking baby steps—was what helped me,” he says. “I was working on a project in optics and didn’t really have a background in it, but being able to navigate fields that aren’t your natural inclination helped me. The problem-solving is the same. Critical thinking— you use that in every field; it’s just applied differently.”
    Category: Minds at Work