Lara Waldrop sets course for space with new NASA program


By Jacqui Nguyen, Staff Writer

The mission of NASA is outlined explicitly on their website: “To discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity.”

University ECE assistant professor, Lara Waldrop, and her team now get to take part in that mission as they were selected by NASA to develop the Solar Terrestrial Probes (STP) Science Mission of Opportunity. Set to launch in 2025, Waldrop and her team have been tirelessly working on this mission since before and throughout the pandemic.

The mission is called “Global Lyman-alpha Imager of the Dynamic Exosphere,” or “GLIDE” and it aims towards understanding how the exosphere, the outermost layer of the Earth’s atmosphere, responds to the Sun and other solar influences.

It will remotely measure this atmospheric region and determine the global structure of it and watch it respond to impulsive events that hit the Earth from the sun.  With GLIDE, Waldrop will be able to see the changes to the atmosphere on a global scale in response to these solar influences.

Her highly experienced team from around the nation consists of other researchers, professors, and partners who have done similar work and research in the past. Instrumental team members from UC Berkeley who have made similar cameras for spacecrafts currently in orbit were selected to make imagers for GLIDE. Ball Aerospace, a company in Boulder, Colorado, was recruited to design and construct the aircraft. On the science team, GLIDE has partners from Boston University who have worked in the field of exospheric science for a long time.

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According to Waldrop, GLIDE will provide her and her team with various kinds of data.

“We will have wide-field images of Earth that will encompass the entire exosphere,” she said. “We will also have the neurofield image which will have a higher spatial resolution and targets on the really interesting part we think will change the most right near the surface of Earth.”

Since GLIDE will utilize optical remote sensing, Waldrop will also be analyzing calibration data. This type of data involves zooming away from the Earth and looking at things like stars to make sure the sensors are working properly.

Within the development of GLIDE, Waldrop has two roles. One is a principal investigator, meaning she leads the mission. In leading the mission, Waldrop makes sure that everything is on schedule, on budget and everything is meeting the requirements that she sets. Her other job is to analyze the data that GLIDE will provide from its launch in 2025.

She said, “My job would then be to turn these raw camera images into scientific information that could be used by modelers and other people in the industry.”

Within the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Waldrop’s research is focused on optical remote sensing which she uses to observe Earth’s exosphere.

Her interest in this field of study started as an undergraduate student. Curious about the effect of solar and spatial influences on Earth, Waldrop joined a research group. She realized that there was a noticeable gap in understanding of these influences and not that much data or knowledge of what was happening in the exosphere.

Dedicated to learning more, she focused her work on finding data primarily for exospheric science.

“I’ve tried my whole career to find this data through ground-based instruments, looking at data from satellites already in space, and grew to realize what is needed is a designated mission for this kind of science,” she said.

From there, the idea for GLIDE was set in motion. Waldrop knew that the bottleneck for getting things in space was the launch aspect since there are many variables that could go wrong during launch. NASA addressed this issue in 2016 when they announced their RideShare Initiative that would allow smaller missions to launch by attaching to a larger rocket.

“When I heard about this RideShare Initiative, I pulled a team together and we waited for a solicitation,” she said.

This solicitation, or the Science Mission of Opportunity, came in 2017. She and her team began working on the first round of proposals where they explained the objectives of the mission and the tools they needed to develop the mission in a 300-page document. They were then one of two proposals selected to compete for the one launch slot and from there, the process only got more rigorous. Within nine months, she and her team put together a concept study report which included a 1,006 page written section detailing the scientific investigation, a two-day oral section that included a live Q&A portion, and a science presentation to the NASA administration.

She said, “It was a multiphase effort on my team’s part and a multiphase evaluation on NASA’s part. I mean, it involved dozens of reviewers: technical, cost, schedule management reviewers, and more.”

These efforts paid off as Waldrop and her team were selected to claim the launch spot and start work on the development of GLIDE. They have been working on this mission ever since then and even throughout the pandemic.

Like many others, Waldrop has experienced many challenges due to Covid-19. School shutdowns in early 2020 kept her and her daughter at home which drastically altered her work schedule. Despite this new way of life, Waldrop has maintained a positive outlook and continues working towards GLIDE’s launch in 2025.

“We were all very much committed to this project” she said,  “We all believed that it was such a good idea that it was worth the extra effort to make it work even under the situation we were in.”

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