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Planes, trains, bikes, and automobiles: Goddard engineer Kevin Boyce hits the road to make sure that a space observatory "made in Japan" makes it to space and sends home a pay-off for science

November 15, 2010 Leave a comment

KEVIN BOYCEAn earlier post featured the scary “spacecraft house of horrors” video about the testing torments suffered by our satellites before we send them to orbit. The video was hosted by our own Kevin Boyce, a spacecraft systems engineer. These days, Kevin is part of the international team working on the Japanese Astro-H mission. Here’s an account of his recent trip to Japan to help design an X-ray instrument.

How do you say in Japanese, “If you don’t succeed, try, try again”?

ASTRO-E was to be Japan’s fifth X-ray astronomy mission, but unfortunately the spacecraft was lost during launch on February 10, 2000.

Ok, try again. A follow-on mission, Astro-E2, launched successfully on July 10, 2005 from the Uchinoura Space Center in Japan. Soon after launch, the mission was renamed Suzaku.

The ill-fated Astro-E spaceraft

The ill-fated Astro-E spacecraft

Kevin Boyce can tell you all about it. Recently, as he was landing at Tokyo’s Narita Airport, it (almost) felt like coming home. “I’ve been here almost 40 times now,” he says. That started in the late 90’s with the ill-fated Astro-E project. Then he worked on the Astro E2/Suzaku mission that followed.

Now he’s an instrument systems engineer on one of the instruments on a new spacecraft called Astro-H. As he disembarks from the plane, he wonders if he should take the usual trains to the hotel, or take the bus this time. He decides on the bus option, and gets some cash from the ATM and buys a Matcha Creme Frappuccino from the Starbucks. Yes, America has left its mark here too.

artist concept of astro h

Artist's concept of Astro-H

Astro-H is Kevin’s third go-round with Japan’s space agency, JAXA, and Japan’s 8th space-based astronomy mission. It will launch into low-Earth orbit intending to trace the growth history of the largest structures in the universe, reveal the behavior of matter in extreme gravitational fields, determine the spin of black holes and study neutron stars, trace shock acceleration structures in clusters of galaxies, and investigate the detailed physics of galactic jets.

Um, is THAT all?

To do all that requires a gadget called a Soft X-ray Spectrometer (SXS), and Kevin is here in Japan to help shepherd the design of the instrument through a complex and high-stakes process that is difficult to carry out effectively solely by email or phone. It take as bunch of long plane rides and as many Matcha Creme Frappuccinos.

He’s in Japan for a week to participate in one of the quarterly Astro-H design meetings. “At these meetings all the various instrument teams report on their status, along with the spacecraft systems team,” he explains. “This generally lasts for two days.”

The rest of the time, the scientists and engineers pick apart the various sub-systems of the SXS. The devil is in the details, as the cliché goes. Miss a detail, and possibly buy lots of (expensive) trouble. Space missions take years and years and millions and millions of dollars.

SXS pushes X-ray observing technology. “Many of the people on both sides of the Pacific who are working on Astro-H, myself included, have been trying to get this technology operating on orbit since 1995,” he explains. “So it’s not just the trains and locations that make it feel like home. Some of my best old friends are here.”

This particular trip included a “hole.” Meeting took up Tuesday and Thursday, but Wednesday was a Japanese holiday, with no meetings scheduled. But you can’t fly home for a day. So what to do?

“Happily, some of our Japanese colleagues scheduled a bike trip into the mountains, and rented me a bike so I could join them,” he says. “We rode 50 kilometers up toward lake Yamanaka, climbing 700 meters in the process. And then back..”

[Read Kevin’s account of the bike trip on the NASA Blueshift blog.]

Snow-capped Mt. Fuji forms part of the background for a bike trip in Japan.

Snow-capped Mt. Fuji forms the background for a bike ride into the mountains.

After that ride, the design meeting was almost anticlimactic. But very important! The reason the X-Ray Spectrometer failed on Astro-E2 was basically due to incomplete communication between Goddard Space Flight Center and the Japanese during the design of the instrument. “This time we’re meeting much more often, and exchanging far more information, so that doesn’t happen again,” Boyce explains. “It’s not enough to exchange drawings and requirements documents. Each side really has to understand the whole instrument, and indeed the whole spacecraft system.”

So this time, Boyce attends the Japanese design meetings and reviews, and they attend the NASA reviews, and they all spend a lot more time on airplanes. But it’s still worth it, because Japan gets an instrument they don’t have the expertise to build at this point, and the US gets access to a whole mission’s worth of scientific data for just the cost of an instrument. Everyone wins.

“But only if we make it work,” Boyce says. “So four, five, six, or more times each year several of us hop on a plane for a week in our other homes here in Japan. Kampai!”

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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