Building for Space: A Collaborative Effort Involving Compromises and Ruthless Quality Assurance

On April 2, 2018, ASIM (Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor was launched into space aboard the CRS-14 Falcon-9/Dragon by SpaceX.

Written by: Dan D. V. Bhanderi

On April 2, 2018, ASIM (Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor was launched into space aboard the CRS-14 Falcon-9/Dragon by SpaceX

To understand the complexity of, and collaboration during, such a project, we’ve had a talk with two significant figures involved: Manager of ASIM Engineering at Terma, Dan Bhanderi and the Senior Scientific Advisor at the Space department of the Technical University of Denmark (DTU Space), Torsten Neubert.

This article will explain the collaborative process while the largest Danish space project to date was under development, and the challenges faced producing this magnificent little gadget.

Let’s get into it.

What is ASIM?

ASIM is an off-earth climate observatory used for measuring upper atmospheric discharges. Eleven days after launch, it arrived at the International Space Station (ISS). As of today, ASIM has been in space for almost four years and has created new insights of occurrences within and alongside thunderstorms. ASIM is a European Space Agency (ESA) project led by DTU Space with Terma involved as the primary development partner in 2012.

The Terma and DTU Partnership

Torsten Neubert initiated the project in the early 1990s.

At the time, the institute was interested in the huge amount of radiation and energy emitted from thunderstorms. ASIM would allow their instruments to point downward (toward the clouds) to give them unique insights into how thunderstorms occur.

In practice, it all started with a phase A study of the ESA project, which is the feasibility study on how to materialize the idea; what instruments and platforms to use. DTU Space led the project and Terma got involved as a supporting figure at this stage.

The broad guidelines for materialization of the project were proposed. It was decided that ASIM should be placed on the International Space Station (ISS), as it had the lowest available orbit in space. It would simply get ASIM as close to thunderstorms as possible.

Moving forward to phase B, Terma’s engineering team gradually got more involved. The scientists’ ideas were not always compatible with what was thought to be achievable in the eyes of the engineers from Terma.

The Challenges of Space Tech Production

The challenges faced during space tech production were twofold:

Firstly, the clash of the expectations, The DTU scientists’ expectations and what was possible according to the engineers, in terms of budget and physics, did not always match up.

Nonetheless, the negotiations went well once both sides understood each other, acknowledging they could not make unrealistic demands or expect unrealistic specifications. 

Secondly, building for space is no walk in the park: Space tech production differs from other engineering assignments, as each project for space is unique, Dan Bhanderi explains.

Terma’s engineering team had to develop completely new equipment and technology specifically tailored for ASIM. However, because ASIM was a space tech production, they were only able to do limited testing with ASIM. Though this was partially due to the expenses involved, the inability to simulate the unique environment of space also played a role. Therefore in reality, the ASIM project moved swiftly from theory directly to space.

This was only possible due to Terma developing highly intelligent analytical models. In practice, Terma was able to verify the accuracy of their analytical models and initially predict how ASIM would perform in space, by simulating only the launch, Dan Bhanderi explains.

Moving from idea to sending ASIM to space has been a process lasting more than two decades. The launch and, later arrival at the ISS could, therefore, either be the culmination of more than 20 years of work or a catastrophe.

The Culmination

The launch took place in Florida, where Dan Bhanderi, Torsten Neubert and the rest of the ASIM crew were provided VIP seating just across from the NASA launch.

Torsten Neubert recalls that ASIM was not the only payload launching into space that day, and the roads leading to the NASA launch pad were clogged with cars, as regular citizens came to witness the launch. This meant that people were caught up in traffic and were late.

“There was a big screen that was counting down towards the launch and people were getting more and more edgy, and we moved out on the balcony - Now it's serious. And I remember when we hit down to zero, it was as if time stood still, I thought the seconds went by incredibly slowly,” Torsten Neubert explains.

They had both knowledge of colleagues’ work blow up at the launch pad, right before their eyes and they both knew this moment would be the culmination of not just 11 years of work for Terma, but a more than 20 year dream of Torsten Neubert’s.

“For a second”, Torsten Neubert explains, “it looked like the rocket would tip over, and then, BOOM, the soundwave hit, and the rocket glided perfectly through the air on its way to the ISS”.

Dan Bhanderi’s nerves got to him 11 days after launch; the day ASIM arrived at the ISS. The pressure of working intensely on a project for more than a decade was overwhelming:

“When we took ASIM out of the dragon transport vehicle with the robotic arm and installed it on the Space Station and we turned the switch, exactly, there, I could feel that, if this doesn't work, that's on us,” Dan Bhanderi explains.

Despite his worries, everything went well. ASIM has been in space for almost four years, doubling its expected lifetime. In those years, ASIM has collected new, never before seen, data.

Today ASIM has provided imagery and data that has given a new understanding of how a lightning form called blue jets occur, new insights showing the effects of extremely high frequency oscillations and how they are a crucial component in understanding magnetar giant flares, as well as studies on gamma-ray flashes and ionospheric ultraviolet emissions powered by lightning.

Learn more in our Podcast

If you are interested in learning more about the idea, development, and launch of ASIM listen to our podcasts on the topic.