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VGTU student on his internship at NASA: Lithuania is well-known for small satellites

VGTU student on his internship at NASA: Lithuania is well-known for small satellites
Narūnas Kapočius, a fourth-year telecommunication engineering student at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University (VGTU) has just returned from an internship at NASA Ames Research Centre in the US. He shared his impressions and achieved results. N. Kapočius believes Lithuania is well-known at NASA for achievements in small satellite industry. In particular, high-tech and small satellite company “Nanoavionics” founded by VGTU Alumni. Many NASA employees named Lithuania as a leading country in this new area of space industry.

More on why his experience gained in NASA Ames Research Centre, located in the Silicon Valley in the USA, is so valuable N. Kapočius explains in an interview he gave for the Agency for Science, Innovation and Technology (MITA).

What got you interested in technology and science?

I always liked physics and mathematics. I think I got inspired by my older brother, who was very active member of astrophysics societies, and young physicists’ and mathematicians’ schools. I also took additional classes in these subjects. That was the beginning.

How did you learn about MITA’s competition for internships at NASA?

Actually, it is quite a story. I believe I was programmed for success. When I was a freshman at the University, my brother gave me a hoodie with NASA’s logo, and was joking that I should apply for the MITA’s competition. I could not take it seriously then. I was studying only general university courses, and did not have any ideas what to write in a motivation letter. Later, after taking specialised programme courses in telecommunication I became more focused and took an excellent opportunity. I applied and got the internship.

What was your project at NASA?

I was working on a small satellite CubeSat project CHOMPTT (CubeSat Handling of Multisystem Precision Time Transfer). It is a joint project between NASA Ames research Centre and the University of Florida. The project started three years ago and is very important. It aims to synchronize two atomic clocks – one on the satellite and another one at the NASA Kennedy Space Centre in Florida – by using short optical pulses.

One of my tasks was to write a code for the ground station to receive and visualise data from the GPS receiver on the satellite. Another task covered software development for decoding of radio packets from beacon radio sending health data. Also I did solar panels sun sensor diodes characterization. Data received from these diodes allows to evaluate satellite’s position: the level and type of illumination of diodes provides information about satellite’s orientation in terms of its axis. There were other tasks as well. I helped a team to prepare for a week-long thermal-vacuum testing (TVAC).

Is it true that you also contributed to the creation of a new satellite?

Yes. The international team I was part of was working on a new satellite. It should be launched into space with an innovative rocket ELECTRON from New Zealand this March. The rocket is created by company “Rocket Labs” from the USA. They are also present in New Zealand. This rocket is very special because most of its parts are printed with a 3D printer. NASA is joking that this is the last hope of small satellite creators, because launching their satellites with such rocket is a lot cheaper. The rocket was tested in May 2017, next two launches are scheduled for January and March this year.

Tell us about work culture at NASA.

First of all, NASA Ames Research Centre has very long traditions. It was established in the forties and people working there make it a very special place. Our team was international. My colleagues were from the USA, Australia, and France. We were only seven team members, and worked together like a small family: always helping each other.

The head of our project was Belgacem Jaroux, a French man living in the USA. I was fascinated by the fact that he not only knew a lot about Lithuania, but also he visited the country several times. He participated in small satellite forum in Lithuania a few years ago. I had two mentors during my internship: a very talented developer from France and a project manager from the University of Florida.

NASA Ames Research Centre employs many researchers and engineers from Europe. All of them are interested in sharing their knowledge and are very friendly with students from Lithuania. In other centres, like Kennedy Space Centre, where flights to space are carried out, more US citizens are employed.

I did my internship this fall together with 50 other students from different countries. Meanwhile, during summer NASA hosts about 500 students. Not many countries have this exceptional opportunity to send students for internships. I am very proud that Lithuania is among 12 countries which have an agreement with NASA.

How did you choose the topic for your NASA project?

My interest in small satellites started during my first years at the university. I was taking part in the activities of CanSat society (construction of small satellites) at the University, was learning the basics of coding of microcontrollers. Also the general atmosphere at VGTU provided many opportunities to dive deeper into the topic, like project with the European Space Agency, and very encouraging professors.

Have your expectations of this internship been met?

It exceeded my expectations in every way possible. I grew professionally a lot. Especially, in coding. But also I learned about work culture at NASA. All employees are extremely motivated there and all of them achieve the results through hard work and dedication. My greatest lesson from this internship is that we should not be afraid of failing. Our team made a lot of mistakes until we have reached our goal. It was very important that we support each other no matter what.

My next goal – writing bachelor thesis. I got inspiration for the topic – development of a protocol for small satellites’ interconnectivity – during my internship at NASA, and finalised it with my thesis supervisor at VGTU. Later, master studies. I can’t imagine my further life without master studies.    

Internships at NASA are funded by the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Lithuania. The candidate selection process is organised by the Agency for Science, Innovation and Technology (MITA). Next round of selection for internships at NASA will be held on 1st quarter in 2018.

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