U launches young rocket scientists' careers

Lindsay Glesener, Jenna Burgett, Abi Valero and Tim Kukowski work on wiring.

Lindsay Glesener, Jenna Burgett, Abi Valero and graduate student Tim Kukowski

When Abi Valero attended the Girl Scout space camp in Huntsville, Alabama, she never dreamed that in a few short years she’d be building a satellite for NASA.

Valero is chief engineer for EXACT, a U student project to study the sun’s corona by building, testing, and ultimately launching a shoebox-sized X-ray telescope. To date the students have twice flown and tested their handiwork in high-altitude balloons. 

“I like that I’m taking what I learned in class and applying it to something that’s going to get launched into space,” says Valero, a junior aerospace engineering and mechanics major.

“What I enjoy most about this project is that I get hands-on experience with how to code and how to work with electrical boards in depth, and before I would learn them in class,” says EXACT project manager Jenna Burgett, a sophomore physics major. “You really learn that from experience.”

EXACT is funded by NASA and the U.S. Air Force through student-training programs involving small satellite payloads. Part of the U’s Small Satellite Project, it engages dozens of U undergrads, plus graduate students in advisory roles.

Corona in the crosshairs

If all goes well, the students’ telescope will be rocketed high into the atmosphere to study small but common coronal explosions called flares, using clues in the X-rays they emit.

“We want to know how flares accelerate particles that can wreak havoc on spacecraft and, rarely, Earth’s power grids,” says EXACT faculty co-lead Lindsay Glesener, an assistant physics professor. “We also want to find out how billions of these flares collectively heat the sun’s corona to millions of degrees—hundreds of times hotter than the sun’s surface.” 

If EXACT helps solve these mysteries, Glesener wants the credit to go to the young researchers.

“This is very much a student-run project,” she notes. “They do everything.”

University of Minnesota, Twin Cities