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The Engineer Building a Smaller Telescope to the Stars

A GIF of the CubeSat ASTERIA deploying from the ISS.
ASTERIA deployed from the ISS on November 20, 2017.

Cube satellites, or CubeSats, might be tiny, but they pack in outsized capabilities. A CubeSat called ASTERIA, smaller than a briefcase, is now being assembled at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Launch is expected in the summer of 2017, when ASTERIA will demonstrate observational powers more often seen in its larger brethren– including technologies that could lead to the detection of star-crossing exoplanets.

Matt Smith, a young man standing against a background of grass and trees.
Matthew W. Smith is Project System Engineer for Arcsecond Space Telescope Enabling Research in Astrophysics (ASTERIA) at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Whether all goes according to plan is largely in the hands of Matthew W. Smith, 32, project system engineer and technical lead for the mission. Smith took a moment recently to reflect on his scientific role, his areas of interest, and the progress made so far in swelling the ranks of under-represented groups in science and engineering fields.

What is your main job at the moment?

I am currently the project system engineer on a small space telescope called ASTERIA. In that role, I’m the chief engineer of the project and the technical lead for the team. My job is to make sure that the design and implementation fulfill the goals of the mission– to demonstrate technologies that may someday help us find exoplanets using small satellites like CubeSats. We’re now in the phase of building the spacecraft and testing the instrument, to make sure it’s working properly and will give us the performance we want in space.

Are exoplanets one of your big scientific interests?

I’ve been interested in exoplanets since I was an undergraduate, and especially in the telescopes and instruments used to find exoplanets. My master's research was on large, segmented telescopes for space use– which have numerous applications, including finding exoplanets. My Ph.D. thesis was related to systems engineering and how to optimize scientific instrumentation. At JPL, I’ve worked on ground-based instruments for exoplanet detection (such as the Gemini Planet Imager), and proposed space-based missions including Terrestrial Planet Finder and the Space Interferometry Mission. Just prior to ASTERIA, I worked on developing technology for a space-based coronagraph, which is an instrument contained within a telescope that blocks out a star’s light so its planets can be seen.

I think this is some of the most interesting work out there, both from a scientific and engineering standpoint. Working on exoplanets raises very fundamental questions about the potential for life elsewhere in the universe, and how to find it. The holy grail of exoplanet research is to find a true Earth analog. That is what we’re pushing towards. However in my daily role I’m less of a scientist and more of an engineer, working on the technical challenges needed to do the exciting things I just mentioned. There is a constant push and pull between science and engineering, and that is one of the most interesting aspects of my work.

Do minorities and women have a strong presence in science and engineering, or do we have work to do?

I think JPL is a very diverse and welcoming place that thrives on diversity. And JPL recognizes that diversity often can make teams better– not just diversity for the sake of diversity, but that it adds value by introducing multiple perspectives. NASA as a whole is an agency that embraces diversity as well. But yes, in the national sense, obviously there is still lots of work to do in terms of women and minorities in science. I think there is an awareness now that, yeah, we have a problem with diversity in the sciences; it’s something that definitely needs to be addressed. People are kind of marching toward that goal, whereas maybe that wasn’t always a recognized problem. I think also social media has helped increase outreach in the STEM fields, and is, I hope, showing younger generations from all backgrounds that a career in science or engineering is possible.