What does your research entail?
I work on several laser communications, or lasercom, programs. My background is in estimation and feedback control systems, so broadly my expertise is in fusing data from different sensors to precisely determine the motion of a mechanical system and direct it as desired. In the context of lasercom, this process is known as pointing, acquisition, and tracking (PAT). PAT is particularly important in lasercom because the beams are very narrow, so if they are not precisely pointed, they will miss the target.
Which lasercom programs have you worked on?
Since I started at the Lab in 2018, I've been working on the TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) lasercom payload, which was launched aboard a small satellite into orbit in May 2022. During initial operations, I was on site at the ground station at a NASA facility in the mountains outside of Los Angeles, California. I analyzed data collected from the spacecraft and ground station to inform next steps and ensure we could consistently establish a communications link. If the spacecraft and ground station don't detect each other, there are many potential causes — for example, the spacecraft or ground station could be pointed incorrectly, or the orbit position could be inaccurate. Sifting through all the data to determine the root cause of any issues is a fun engineering puzzle.
Currently, I am supporting on-orbit operations on site at the Laboratory. When we have a lasercom pass, I am one of several people who take turns operating our ground station equipment. We remotely configure the equipment for the pass, run a pre-pass check to ensure it's operating as intended, and coordinate with on-site NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory operators to prepare for the pass. Our equipment is automated during the pass, so we only play an observing role, and then we shut down the equipment afterward.
How would you describe your working environment at the Laboratory?
The Lab operates in a space in between academia, industry, and government. I work on novel technology that has real-world impact, and the Lab is unique in having technical experts in a wide variety of fields. If I need to learn something about a new topic, I can almost always find an expert here to consult with.
Which achievement in your Laboratory career are you most proud of?
My favorite aspect of my work is seeing a project through to the prototype or operational stage — observing a physical system achieve its intended performance is incredible. Watching TBIRD launch into orbit was a proud moment. TBIRD was the first program I worked on coming to the Lab right out of grad school. Four years later, I watched it launch from Kennedy Space Center with other team members. For any lasercom mission, the first acquisition of the optical signal is a major step. Given how small the beams are, this accomplishment was not trivial. Overcoming challenges to make first contact was very satisfying.
How do you spend your free time?
My favorite activities are running, hiking, cooking and baking, and reading. My wife and I recently became foster parents in Massachusetts, which is in desperate need of foster families. Fostering is a way for me to support my community directly. Fostering is very challenging, as it comes with a lot of uncertainty. When you welcome a kid into your home, you don't know how long they will stay and what their needs will be. Every kid is different, and I am constantly facing new situations, having to learn and adapt quickly.
Where have your travels taken you lately?
I am working my way through the national parks, filling up the pages of my national parks passport. I love nature, and seeing landscapes and animals totally different from what I am used to fills me with wonder. Yellowstone National Park is particularly special for me — I went there multiple times on family vacations as a kid and a few times as an adult.