Podcast

A View from Above: Building ASIM – a High-Tech Observatory in Space

In this episode, we’re taking you into space to talk about a small but quite fascinating gadget called ASIM, which is short for Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor.

Written by: Terma
Podcast Space

ASIM is an observatory installed on the European Columbus module of the International Space Station (ISS) that monitors the high-altitude electrical discharges in the stratosphere and mesosphere above large thunderstorms.

This joint project, led by the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) and Terma, has been developed for the European Space Agency (ESA). ASIM is the largest Danish space project to date.

Today’s Guests:

  • Senior System Engineer and Manager of ASIM Engineering at Terma, Dan Bhanderi
  • Senior Scientific Advisor DTU Space, Torsten Neubert

Your Host: Mikkel Svold
Produced for Terma by Montanus

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Resources

Want to learn more about ASIM?

In our blog post "ASIM is Key to Understanding Lightning and Energy in the Atmosphere", we'll look at the beginning of the ASIM project and one of the interesting discoveries ASIM has helped shed new light on in the past four years. Why, after all, is it that this small gadget is so important?

READ ARTICLE

 

Episode Transcript

Mikkel Svold:
Welcome to Allies in Innovation, I'm Mikkel Svold and in this episode, we are taking you into space for a talk about a small but pretty fascinating little gadget called ASIM. Now, ASIM is short for Atmosphere-Space Interaction Monitor. And in short, ASIM is looking down on earth from the International Space Station of serving thunderstorms and gigantic lightnings going into space. ASIM is a project developed for the European Space Agency, ESA and is the largest Danish space project to date. ASIM has been led by DTU, the Danish Technical University or Technical University of Denmark and Terma. And to tell us more about ASIM, I've invited two of the people who were deeply involved in making this project a reality, namely Senior Systems Engineer and Manager of the ASIM engineering team at Terma, Dan Bhanderi. Welcome to you, Dan.

Dan Bhanderi:
Thank you very much.

Mikkel Svold:
And also joining us is Torsten Neubert, welcome to you, Torsten.

Torsten Neubert:
Thank you, Mikkel.

Mikkel Svold:
Who is of course, the Senior Scientific Advisor at DTU Space, which is part of the Technical University of Denmark.

Mikkel Svold:
Now, before we go into depth with the development of ASIM and the fascinating results, maybe Dan, you could give us some kind of brief introduction to, well, what I call a small gadget, which is basically an understatement, what is ASIM?

Dan Bhanderi:
Well, ASIM is space hardware, space equipment. I think we call ASIM an observatory, I think because it's an off earth observing equipment that is used to measure upper atmospheric discharges that Torsten is very curious about.

Mikkel Svold:
And just to give the listener just a spatial idea of what it is, how large is it and what does it look like?

Dan Bhanderi:
Yeah, well, it's little shy of a cubic meter so actually, 1x1 by under, I think it's 700 millimeters in the height and it's 314 kilograms so like a Mini, I guess something of that size.

Mikkel Svold:
And I know that it was reasonably moved from one location to another location, how is that done and why?

Dan Bhanderi:
Yeah. Well, first of all, why was because there was a new NASA payload that actually had booked the location that ASIM was sitting in and designed for. And ASIM was originally designed for two years' mission life and then with a possibility of one year's extension. And it's running now almost four years but in the books, it was not registered, so to speak. And payload development is something that takes very long time so this team probably started maybe 10 years ago. So obviously, there was a free location planning-wise. So, when we heard that this payload was coming up and ready for launch, Torsten had the idea to see if we could extend the ASIM mission by moving out of the way but still staying on the ISS.

Dan Bhanderi:
And the way it's done is similar to the way when we arrived at the ISS is there's a very long 16-meter robotic arm from Canada that was used to build the Space Station. It took out the modules from the space shuttle Soyuz rockets or transport vehicles' progress in Soyuz. And they were installed one by one and assembled the Space Station and they still use that. So, we actually design our hardware to be compatible with a robotic arm also with astronauts.

Mikkel Svold:
To that specific robotic arm, I guess.

Dan Bhanderi:
To that specific one, yeah. There's some generic interfaces that you use in order to be compatible with the hardware on the Space Station. And that robotic arm simply grabs ASIM, and they cannot only grab, so hold ASIM, it can actually rotate what it's holding on and that is actually a mechanism, a bolt you can say. So, when you turn it one way, it releases and when you turn it the other way, it engages. And that's actually used to install it both on the transport vehicle for launch and on the ISS locations. And it's generic to all the platforms we have on the Space Station so you can actually go anywhere if you have that generic interface.

Mikkel Svold:
Okay. And now, with that kind of settle I want to dig into why ASIM came up in the first place and why is it important for, let's start with you, Torsten, why is it important for DTU to have this project and why was it important when you launched or when you started developing it?

Torsten Neubert:
Well, for me personally, it started a long time ago when I was in America. And there was this observation of what was later called a red sprite in those days, we didn't know the color of it, it was black and white camera. It was a student that was testing a camera that was going to be used for a role of observations in America and he looked in the summer, he tested the camera by looking over the prairie above thunderstorms. And then, he saw these flashes in images and they first thought, "Oh, something is wrong with the camera."

Torsten Neubert:
And then, they realized that it was actually true, a red sprite is up in the mesosphere, it's like 50 to 80 kilometers altitude, huge flash of light. You can actually see it with your naked eye if you know where to look and then you're lucky if you're on mountain top, for example and you look over a thunderstorm, then you'll see this flash. It's very brief but huge. And I thought, "Wow, that's fantastic, there's something completely new," because I'd been doing-

Mikkel Svold:
When was this?

Torsten Neubert:
That was in 1989 or something, I was at Stanford at the time. I thought, "This was great." So, when I came back to Denmark and came to Danish Meteorological Institute to be part of the Ørsted project, Ørsted was Denmark's first satellite. Then I thought, "Why don't we do something like this here?" I was thinking, "What kind of science can I do at DMI?" And space science was a bit far off for a Danish Meteorological Institute, but sprite had something to do with the weather and things.

Torsten Neubert:
So anyway, around year 2000, I believe it, no, around 1995, '6, '7 around there, we started really working for it to get this up and running in Europe. So yeah, that is my story. I thought it was interesting because it's new and I'm driven by curiosity and science. In those days people, students from high school or no, grammar school, they would send me emails and ask, "What is a red sprite and what can you use it for?"

Mikkel Svold:
And what can you use it for?

Torsten Neubert:
You can use it for anything. I mean, you can use it to gain some insights in electric discharges and the mesosphere where they happen. But it's not like you can harvest the energy that people were asking about and so on. So for me, it was kind of, "Ah, now I get this question again."

Mikkel Svold:
I think we should, I want to ask that specific question again just in a moment but before, I want to ask you Dan, why was it interesting for Terma to go into this project? And when did you get involved?

Dan Bhanderi:
Well, Terma has a space department and we do a lot of activities in space on the ESA and also other private projects. And of course, we always think that, like we did with the Ørsted satellite, which was a huge success, I think we know that we can do really great things also for low budget in Denmark. And we will of course, always support Danish-led projects because we think there's a big scientific, not scientific sorry, social economical gain, I should say. So, I think there was a-

Mikkel Svold:
Also, from the space projects.

Dan Bhanderi:
Yeah, there was a study from Rambøll, I think that showed that every time you invest one kroner in space, you actually get five in return.

Mikkel Svold:
Why, how is that? I know that the microwave was invented for space travel, but I mean, are there many of those examples?

Dan Bhanderi:
Well, it's not a spinoff which is what you're talking about. But you get the knowledge and the kind of workforce and STEM people you need for these kind of activities is something that economical, makes good sense for the social return. Of course, Rambøll can better answer where those gains are coming from but at least I think it's an important area to invest because also the engineering challenges in space projects are just as big as the scientific challenges and return you get from it. So, engineering-wise, we learn very much and learn to make high-quality products, we learn to do very reliable development and gain a lot of technology that can be used for other things as well.

Torsten Neubert:
Yeah, if I can add specifically here with ASIM and getting it on the International Space Station. It's a man-rated system so there's very high spec demands. No, what is it called?

Mikkel Svold:
Requirements.

Torsten Neubert:
Requirements, yes. Very high level requirements for safety and so on. So, if a company can say, "Oh, I've delivered a huge payload to the International Space Station," I mean, that's good to have on your CV when you go out and want to secure other job, what is it called, other tasks? Yeah.

Dan Bhanderi:
Yeah, it was definitely a challenge with the human rating.

Torsten Neubert:
But maybe I can add for us, why did I think that we could do it at the Institute? Then you had to remember when this started, we were not DTU Space, we were Danish Space Research Institute, and we were independent of DTU. And there was a lack of projects in the engineering group. There was actually engineers at that time to do things. And the reason is that they had developed a satellite, well, instrument for a satellite with Russia. And then, the wall fell, and Russia disintegrated, Soviet Union, sorry, Soviet Union disintegrated, and the satellite never materialized for anything. And it had been a huge investment for that Institute in those days.

Torsten Neubert:
I mean, all the engineers were focused on this and suddenly it all fell away. It just tells you that it's a very risky business also to do these big satellite projects but there they were, these engineers and they had time to start to do this. And Danish Space Research Institute was interested in cosmology and looking outwards towards the stars and galaxies and so on. And we had discovered that these thunderstorms, they emit huge radiation with huge energy from the thunderstorms. So, we wanted to take the instruments and point them downwards towards the cloud.

Mikkel Svold:
So, the same instruments at that time.

Torsten Neubert:
The same type of instruments, yes, of course, modified appropriately. So, that is why I thought that that would be a great fit even though at the time I was at DMI, Danish Meteorological Institute. So, that means that this was a very good idea that also the director in those days thought and so that's how it started out really. Yeah.

Mikkel Svold:
And then coming down to, "Okay, we decide we want do this," and then how do you then go from there? How do you start development and when does the partnership between Terma and DTU, how did that start?

Dan Bhanderi:
Well actually, it started at DTU first. Torsten gets the idea, DTU Space have to consider where to get some funding to materialize that idea. And it started with a phase A study, I guess, at some point at least, where Terma was actually supporting DTU and DTU had the prime role to figure out how they could materialize a project doing these studies. And ESA projects work this way, they activate different phases of a project starting with, sometimes they call it phase zero, which is the very early days, then there's a phase A, which is the feasibility study and materializing what instruments can be used to, what is the platform should we use, ISS or self-standing flying satellite? Once that has materialized, the phase A study then concludes-

Mikkel Svold:
And just very short, what are the benefits from going with the ISS or solo-

Torsten Neubert:
Well, I can answer that. It's not that we could not have been on a satellite but it's like, you wait for transport and then this bus comes along and then you get into it.

Mikkel Svold:
And so, either you're on the bus or you're not.

Torsten Neubert:
Yeah. So, you could have taken another bus, I guess, but it just didn't come.

Mikkel Svold:
All right, yeah.

Torsten Neubert:
So, there was this opportunity.

Mikkel Svold:
Okay.

Torsten Neubert:
But I have to say that ISS, the International Space Station is a really good place for us to be because it's in the lowest available orbit in space. So, we get as close to the thunderstorms as we can.

Mikkel Svold:
As far as I know, it's so low that it actually has small rockets or vents that propels it outwards to keep it from falling into earth.

Torsten Neubert:
Yeah.

Dan Bhanderi:
That's aerodynamical drag so it's flying at 400 kilometers and that's quite low and there's actually still molecular air atmosphere. So, it is vacuum but there is still molecules that you're hitting and when you are flying 27,000 kilometers an hour, that has an effect.

Mikkel Svold:
As you do lose speed significantly.

Dan Bhanderi:
So, you do lose speed. So, every month the orbit needs to be raised, which is done by a Russian transport vehicle that docks underneath and that raises the orbit every month to maintain those 400 kilometers.

Mikkel Svold:
It's really fascinating. Imagine that.

Dan Bhanderi:
Yeah.

Mikkel Svold:
I want to dig into a little bit, what was the challenges that you experienced from, well, from Terma and from DTU and maybe were there any challenges that you faced combining these two worlds? One of the commercial and also the engineering side with the scientific and I guess, non-commercial side?

Torsten Neubert:
Well, I think actually deciding on the instrumentation and actually getting what we want, so to speak, from the engineers was actually going reasonably well. When I say that it's because both sides need to have an understanding of the other side, basically. So, we at DTU Space must of course understand that you can't make demands or specifications that are unrealistic.

Mikkel Svold:
Is that hard?

Torsten Neubert:
When a space project starts, and it usually starts out with a scientist if it's a research project like this then, "Okay, why don't we put this sensor on now we're going up anyway and why don't we put this sensor on?" So, there's a phase for a couple of years where it gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. And then eventually, reality kicks in and you realize that it has to work. I mean, it's like playing trumpet in a band. If you have a wrong note, everybody will stand up, sit up and wake up, that was a wrong note. But if you play in the symphony orchestra, the violin, bad note, okay nobody-

Mikkel Svold:
It kind of disappear ...

Torsten Neubert:
Yeah, but the space business, it really has to work. Otherwise, the whole country is going to think, "What are these crazy people doing? We spend all this money, now it doesn't work," so it has to work. And then, there comes a time where it shrinks and becomes leaner and you think of risks and risks and you cut it down.

Mikkel Svold:
And cutting it down or downsizing the instruments, is that done from a scientific point of view or is that where you come in, Dan to say-

Dan Bhanderi:
I always say that the phase A that I talked about before, where DTU was the prime is where the scientists are in the candy store and they have great ideas and they say, "We want this and this." And once you're going, as Torsten said, "If we could add this and this, it'll be even greater." Then the phase B is where Terma in 2007 got the prime contract for that part.

Mikkel Svold:
You're the boring people who say no.

Dan Bhanderi:
And then, the phase C, D comes after, that's where you really kick off the project and go to launch pad. But in the phase B is where the engineers tell the scientists what they can afford. So, we have to because that's the task of phase B, well, also phase A is to figure out the price. But we always need to, "What will it cost to materialize?" And also the time of course. So, you can't wait forever either, which is also-

Mikkel Svold:
Is it mostly a question of cost as in money-wise cost or is it also a question of say the size of the payload or the weight restrictions that you need? I guess, it's both, right?

Dan Bhanderi:
It's both. I mean, we know after the phase A study and we knew that politically, the right way to go was to be on the Space Station. There it's quite well-defined what the resources are. So, if there's a location you want to be at, it has to have a clear field of view of the thunderstorms down below. So, we know what is the volume you can have there, what is the mass, what is the power we can get, all these things are very well-defined. If you want to go with a self-standing satellite, well, then you have to define the cost versus the launch cost. So, you have to have an idea about what the launch cost is, what can you afford and then define your resource requirements around that. But for the Space Station, everything is very well-defined so we know what we have.

Mikkel Svold:
Before we dig into the research that's done after, well, now that it's in space and data's come down. And before we dig into that, I want to dig a little bit more into the production. Was it challenging to, well, I guess it's challenging to build something that goes to space, but what was especially challenging do you think building ASIM?

Dan Bhanderi:
Well, a space project is always challenging because you want to build something new that was never built before and you only get one chance and it has to work as Torsten said.

Mikkel Svold:
And can't you prototype your way out of that?

Dan Bhanderi:
You can, but you can only test so much on ground because the space environment is very unique. Now, we do thermal vacuum testing for instance, to simulate the environment of space, but we cannot test everything sitting in a vacuum chamber. For instance, we cannot see sensors, how they will observe sprites and blue jets and all these things while we are in a thermal of vacuum chamber. So, the combination of everything we have to wait until we're actually in space. So, we need a lot of analysis work to convince ourselves and ESA, our customers and the scientists of course, that this will actually work.

Mikkel Svold:
So, there's a lot of going directly from theory to it's in space.

Dan Bhanderi:
Yes, absolutely. And a good example is for instance, in what we call environmental testing, we have to do vibration because the rocket launch is going to do really a lot of vibration, random shaking of the payload, which is really harsh. You have the thermal environment and the vacuum environment. So, we test that on ground. But a lot of people think that we actually test it because then we know it will survive launch and space. But in fact, what we do is actually verifying the analytical models we have that analyze everything at the same time. And if we can also predict with our models what will happen in a test, we know that the analysis is also pretty good at predicting what will happen in space.

Mikkel Svold:
So, I need to get that right. So, what you're testing is basically, you're testing the computer models so you know when it's up in space that you could rely on or you can correct for that, whatever.

Dan Bhanderi:
Exactly. So, what we analyze on the computer is more extreme than what we test because things happen at the same time. Something, for instance, mechanically, you can shake a piece of metal but at the same time, it actually also bends, there's a stress to the bending and stuff like this and we cannot go around pushing and apply that pressure at the same time. There's acoustics environments from the rocket that also applies the pressure and you can test for that but if you can't afford it, we can analyze it.

Mikkel Svold:
Yeah. And I guess, there would probably also be some of the materials that you need to use in order to get good results are so expensive that you can't make a lot of prototypes out of it because they'll cost too much.

Dan Bhanderi:
Yeah. There's a lot of what we call model philosophy, which drives the cost. I mean, you can build an engineering model that test the electronics and the software, you can also build a structural thermal model that will test exactly those parts we're talking about. You can do a full qualification model where you basically build two satellites and one stays on ground, you test everything it's fully representative of the flight one.

Mikkel Svold:
It sounds like very expensive.

Dan Bhanderi:
Exactly, so we didn't do that. So, we only had the engineering model and went directly to flight and we couldn't really do a lot of environmental testing on anything before we had the flight hardware. So, we had to be very careful in testing it because if it broke, we wouldn't have something to launch.

Mikkel Svold:
And now, ASIM's in space, it's been for a little bit over four years, is that right? And in my research, I found that it was only supposed to, or it was only made for lasting two years, is that also right?

Dan Bhanderi:
Yes.

Mikkel Svold:
So, you've actually had doubled the time in space than initially planned and also you've now changed the location of the observatory. But now that's in space, now we come back to the question that I said before that I want to ask you Torsten, why is it important to know about these atmospheric lights?

Torsten Neubert:
Well, let me first explain a little bit what it is that we are looking for. Thunderstorms generate lightning and everybody knows lightning. It's very high power, very high energy release very quickly and it's dangerous and people are in awe-

Dan Bhanderi:
1.21 gigawatts from Back to the Future.

Torsten Neubert:
If you say so, yeah. Yeah, I can't, those numbers they're so large.

Mikkel Svold:
I'm not sure a lot of people even knows what it means.

Torsten Neubert:
No. But the thing is that if you see lighting in a thunderstorm, then your eyes are naturally drawn towards all these flashing in the thunderstorm. But the strange thing is that if you look above the storm clouds, you might see strange things like blue glimpses or blue jets that travel 50 kilometers upwards away from the earth.

Mikkel Svold:
So, that's an opposite lightning, is that right?

Torsten Neubert:
Yes, you could say it's a lightning that has lost its way, it's just going upwards, it goes upwards and it's blue. It might even go as high as the ionosphere that you have at 85 kilometers altitude. It's a conducting layer at the top of the atmosphere. So, you actually get a short circuit between the top of the thunderstorm and this conducting ionosphere 85 kilometers up, it's called the gigantic jet. And another thing that was discovered also in the 1990s as I mentioned earlier, is flashes of high energy gamma rays.

Torsten Neubert:
We are used to gamma rays from stars or quasars or whatever, emits them out in the cosmos, but they also come from thunderstorms. And we're curious about what all this is and for that we designed ASIM. I would like to add to what ... Dan was just talking about that we have had to limit the sensors that we can have on board for cost reasons mainly, but also for other reasons. But the sensors we do have are really exquisite. We have three photometers that are measuring in three different wave bands.

Mikkel Svold:
And a photometer is measuring light, right?

Torsten Neubert:
Yes, it's just like what you have on your camera. It measures just a total light coming in, it doesn't take any images but just flux of photons. And two of them have very, very narrow bands and they pick out atomic and molecular lines that are emitted in these strange flashes, both from lightning that we see and also from the lightning that I just talked about that is new. Then we had two cameras also in two bands and then a huge, I would say X and gamma ray detector, it has to be large because you need a lot of mass because it's high energy photons and they can go through mass.

Torsten Neubert:
So, you need much mass to absorb them and measure them. And this is a very sophisticated instrument. So, even though there's maybe not as many sensors we originally wanted, it's like the Ferrari of instruments, it's very, very well designed, it's probably the best, highest time resolution, everything that has flown in space. So, that is what has given us so much new data on these phenomena.

Mikkel Svold:
And that data including, I guess, of course the analysis of it has been important or interesting enough to make two Nature magazine publishings and one Science, two of which were front page covers.

Torsten Neubert:
Yes.

Mikkel Svold:
What was the results or what were the results that were so interesting that you could go on prominent places?

Torsten Neubert:
Yeah. Let me talk about the Nature article first. We look down on a thunderstorm and then we see a brief flash of 10 microseconds in one of these bands that I mentioned. It's a blue band, just 10 microseconds. And actually, we can measure it like this because we have such good temporal resolution. We sample with the photometers 100,000 times a second. So, within one sample, the amplitude of the signal just goes through the roof and then it drops off. And then, during the following several hundred milliseconds, this blue light increases up to a maximum.

Mikkel Svold:
Slowly or?

Torsten Neubert:
Yeah, over 100, 200, 3, 400 milliseconds, it just increases and increases and increases to a maximum and then it falls off again. And the cameras, even though we are looking towards nadir down towards the earth, the cameras, you can see like an extended object, it looks horizontally of course, when you're looking down. But if you think it three dimensionally, it's actually like an object sticking off and we view it at some angle. So, we argued that this is a blue jet that is moving from the cloud top and up into the stratosphere. So, the new thing is not the blue jet, we knew about blue jets, but when it starts out, it starts out with a blue flash 10 microsecond, enormous blue flash, just this boom-

Mikkel Svold:
Huge burst.

Torsten Neubert:
Yeah. And then, this jet rises up. That was completely new. In fact-

Mikkel Svold:
And to be a bit cynical, why is that interesting?

Torsten Neubert:
Well, if you think about lightning, then you think maybe you know everything because we've known it for such a long time and we can see it and so on. But actually, if you look inside the cloud, you can't see how it starts. How does the whole thing start? Lightning is a breakdown of the gas so you have free electrons and you have a high electric fields that are generated, everybody knows this. They accelerate the electrons, create collisions, new electrons and conductive channels and so on.

Torsten Neubert:
But how does the whole thing begin? I mean, do you have an electron, two electrons? Okay, that's not enough. How does the whole thing develop inside cloud? All that is not very well-known because you don't want really to go inside the clouds and measure, it's dangerous. I mean, it has been done. I have proposed it for my graduate students because I mean, there's so many of those so why not…

Mikkel Svold:
I guess, you could do it with a drone instead of a man.

Torsten Neubert:
I have had the idea but that is for a different podcast, I guess. But think about it, lightning is just a “gnist,” what is that in English?

Mikkel Svold:
Spark.

Torsten Neubert:
It's just a spark but it's a very long spark. And what is the physics inside of the spark? The electrons, how do they drift? How is the temperature gradient with [inaudible]. There's lots of things we don't know.

Dan Bhanderi:
And if I may add something, because one thing that Torsten actually showed me at some point in the development was a high-speed recording of a lightning flash. And when we think about a lightning, I mean, I'm not a scientist either, when we think about lightning, we just see a flash. But when you see this high-speed video, they take videos with 10,000 frames per second-

Mikkel Svold:
Yes, that creates a slow-motion video-

Dan Bhanderi:
And then you play it slow motion. I mean, a lightning is so much and it's a huge process. And I think that's what Torsten is really diving into. What we think is something that happens instantly is a whole lifetime of evolution of a lightning that happens within half a second or something, right?

Torsten Neubert:
Yeah. So, if you now go to the Science paper, then it connects these high energy flashes of photons, the terrestrial gamma ray flashes as we call them. Terrestrial because they come from the Earth. And then, illumination of the ionosphere, we connect these two things and point out that these flashes are actually generated at the tip of lightning by very, very high energy electrons. We are talking about 10, 20, 30 mega electron volts electrons, if you go to-

Mikkel Svold:
And in comparison to-

Torsten Neubert:
Yeah, if you go to the dentist, I think you're down at five KV, 5,000. So, it's thousand times higher energies. Yeah. And that gives us an insight into the lightning process about the kinetics of electrons and how they move and are accelerated and so on. That gives us a window into more detailed signs of what actually happens when lightning propagates. Think about it, we know a lot about aurora and the atmosphere and so on because we can travel in, and we can measure it. But lightning is very, very dangerous and it happens so quickly. So, we don't know that much about it really if we think about it. But that being said, this is what drives me when I did ASIM interest. But there's another interest that has to do with climate change and climate.

Mikkel Svold:
Yeah, because that was what, in the preparation for this episode, I asked you a little provocatively, I guess where's the value for money in ASIM? Why is it important to do this kind of research at all? And I remember that your answer was that, "Well, basic research is always important because it is the foundation of all research obviously. But also, it's important to have an understanding of energy in the atmosphere. Can you just briefly check into that?

Torsten Neubert:
Yes, yes I can. Well of course, climate is really a huge thing these days politically, societal and so on. And the reason is of course, that it's very costly if we don't understand how climate works in the atmosphere and how it develops in the future. And models for climate change and how things will look like, say 10, 20, 50 years from now, they are only as good as a physics that you put into them. So, if you look at the water level, for example, then there's a number of scenarios that reflect different assumptions, that tells us how much will the water rise over the next, let's say, 50 years. And just imagine that one model says half a meter and the other says one meter.

Torsten Neubert:
How are you going to design a new metro for example? How are you going to protect an area with a levy, should you design for half a meter or for one meter? There's a huge cost involved, both in being too conservative and too careful and to be less so ... I mean, if you underestimate it's expensive, if you overestimate it's expensive. So, what lightning and thunderstorms do is they change the composition of the atmosphere, in particular the concentration of greenhouse gases. It is included in some models but at a very crude level, just saying a lightning stroke is defined as this but we know lightning take many forms.

Torsten Neubert:
It will make so and so many molecules of NO or whatever and we don't care about what altitude it is. So, it's very, very crude, it's very crude and very simple. So, so we would like to do it better with ASIM and with new projects that we are thinking of in order to reduce these uncertainties. So, we want to put more physics into these climate models. And so, I don't know how important it is, I mean, but even a little improvement of the uncertainty would be fantastic.

Mikkel Svold:
And it can also have a huge impact on the model outcome obviously.

Torsten Neubert:
Yes, it could. Yeah, it could.

Mikkel Svold:
Now, I want to ask you about because you've been involved in the project for many years already and then the date comes, we're launching the rocket that takes ASIM up. Can you describe that moment? I mean, Dan maybe you can start.

Dan Bhanderi:
Yeah. I mean, it's something you have looked forward to for so many years when you start the project that if we are success one day we will be on the launch pad. And originally actually we should be with the Japanese rocket because SpaceX wasn't ready with the Falcon rockets at the time. So, in the beginning of the project we envisioned we will go to Japan to watch the launch but it changed along the way and then we were there in Florida with VIP seats, with NASA and with a great view of the launch and it was absolutely wonderful. But there was a lot of people, a lot of things going on. From an engineering point of view, I was surprised that I was not as invested as I thought I would be because that was not my responsibility. For once-

Mikkel Svold:
You weren't worried at all?

Dan Bhanderi:
No. I mean, of course, you don't want to see a launch failure of course, that would be jeopardizing, catastrophe for a lot of people. But I wasn't so nervous about it because I knew it wasn't good capable hands and it was not my job to make sure that that part worked, that was somebody else's task.

Mikkel Svold:
So, you just have to make sure that ASIM worked once it was up in space-

Dan Bhanderi:
Exactly, 11 days later when we installed ASIM, took it out of the dragon transport vehicle with a robotic arm and installed it on the Space Station and we had to do the switch on, exactly, there, I could feel that if this doesn't work, I mean, that's on us, that's on Terma and the consortium behind that it had to work at that point.

Mikkel Svold:
And if it doesn't, it's a lot of money just basically for nothing, right?

Dan Bhanderi:
Absolutely. Yeah.

Mikkel Svold:
And what about you, Torsten, because you had how many years before ...

Torsten Neubert:
Oh, Mikkel that’s classified information. I think too many years. I forget when I started. Actually, it was many years ago. Let’s just leave it at that. But for me, it was a very big, fantastic experience. I went to Florida with my wife, I think it was very very early April and we had a little hotel that was close to the beach, we could view over the ocean and in the morning these penguins came gliding over the water.

Mikkel Svold:
The perfect morning.

Torsten Neubert:
It was beautiful, yeah. Very good weather and beautiful – Florida is beautiful. The area where the launch is taken place is flat, but it is lots of water like, channels and so on and mangrove and those kind of things. And there is signs that tells that alligators – “watch the alligators” and so on and we had to be there a couple of days early, because there were things that needed to be arranged with access to the place, you need batches and the guest that you brought, well could they come in or could they not come in with us. It was not totally well-organized from the Nasa-side, I would say, but everything turned out fine. I needed to speak to journalists and so on…

Torsten Neubert:
So, I came early to this launch site, which us, we were gathered at the top of a building with huge balconies so you can view over the launch pad at the distance. And my wife and actually Ole Hørkner’s wife and some ... Ole Hørkner is working at Terma, and they also were allowed in. But they came little bit later and it turns out that all the roads are clogged with people who want to come and see the launch.

Mikkel Svold:
Like tourists?

Torsten Neubert:
Yeah, tourists. Yeah or people from Florida.

Mikkel Svold:
But not people involved in the projects.

Torsten Neubert:
No, no, no, no, no, no, no, they're totally clogged. And they had to park their car way out, far away and they had to rush through this “mangrove” type situations-

Mikkel Svold:
With alligators.

Torsten Neubert:
With alligators and they just managed to come up in good time. And then, they had arranged, NASA had arranged buffet with things that you could eat and a lot of people were there but ASIM was not the only one payload that was going to be launched and we were out in the balcony. And there's a big screen that is counting down towards launched and people are getting more and more edgy and we move out at the balcony and now, "Okay, now it's serious." And I remember when we hit down to zero, it was as if time stood still, I thought really the seconds went slowly.

Torsten Neubert:
I mean, the rocket ignited, you couldn't hear anything because the sound wave hadn't come yet. And I thought it wasn't moving, just standing. I thought, "Ah." and then suddenly, it started slowly but it was incredibly slowly, I'm thinking this is tipping over, this is not going to go well. And boom and the sound wave hit and then it gathered more momentum, the rocket, and then it just glided up and went into perfect-

Mikkel Svold:
And how long time are we talking now? So, the countdown from say a minute or so and then until you couldn't see the rocket anymore?

Torsten Neubert:
Oh, I don't know, man, a couple of minutes yeah, I think so. And one of the project leaders at the DTU Space, he was in tears, he was in tears.

Mikkel Svold:
But Dan was obviously cool about it because he wasn't nervous or anything.

Torsten Neubert:
But there were all sorts of reactions. I mean, I was really, I mean, that was my big worry it was going to say, "Boom," and then gone was this ASIM. And you have to remember that people have spent so much of their own personality and personal life, actually.

Mikkel Svold:
It's not just time, it's also investing-

Torsten Neubert:
No, no, no and it's not like a nine to five job. I mean, they worked late nights, they really shed blood and tears for this project you see, so they've invested a lot in it.

Dan Bhanderi:
You need to be really passionate about your work to work in our business. Also just the fact that it, for me for instance, took 11 years from I started 'til we were on the launch pad. So, you have to be really passionate to make it from-

Mikkel Svold:
It's a pretty long timeframe for a human mind to comprehend, right?

Torsten Neubert:
It is, it is, yeah. But thankfully, it all went well. I can add that we have collaborated very much with another group in France that had a satellite called Taranis and they also wanted to launch and it does something similar to ASIM but with different instruments. And they failed in launch. It was launched a couple of years later but the launch failed. So, it is serious. I mean-

Mikkel Svold:
The launch itself, do you have the feeling of, "Now, this is the culmination of this project," or was that like you said, Dan, was that 11 days later or-

Dan Bhanderi:
No, I would say that the launch is a very specific point in time. We really feel that now, for us, it was a completion because contractually, we have to deliver the payload at the launch pad and then other people take care of the launch. And then, we of course support the operations. So for us, it's the culmination because it's where our work or at least the responsibility of the hardware stops.

Mikkel Svold:
I want to ask, Torsten for you, being involved in the process leading up to launch, how is that different from now that it's in space and does it live up to your expectations and do you keep the kind of momentum that you had before?

Torsten Neubert:
Yes, I would say so. I would say it this way that ... So, you have to realize that DTU Space also invested a lot in ASIM actually more than they were willing to originally funding- wise. So, for several years, I was, what's Danish, “tålt ophold”

Mikkel Svold:
Yeah, they kind of ...

Torsten Neubert:
Yeah, they gradually accepted that I was still an employee because I knew that if they wanted anything out of this animal, then they had to keep me, but I was not looked well upon for a while. So, when we actually managed to get our first paper in Science, that was truly a victory because you have to remember that Science is incredibly difficult to get into, it's such high prestigious journal. So, I felt we had given something back. And then miraculously, we got a second paper and in Nature, which is of a similar status and miraculously, a third paper. And a bunch of paper started to materialize in other journals and that is a momentum that I really enjoy because it's harvesting you see. The other has been hard work, hard work, hard work but it's harvest that has come and that has been very gratifying.

Mikkel Svold:
And I guess for you Dan, the lead up to launch and the 11 days later when you had to ...

Dan Bhanderi:
Install it.

Mikkel Svold:
Install it, yeah. So, how was the before and the after work for you?

Dan Bhanderi:
It was extremely relaxing. I mean, I remember driving home, I was in Belgium on the day we installed it, that's where they operate ASIM and when they get the first data and they take decisions on switching on and when they can switch on, I had to tell them the temperature, give them the go ahead to switch on.

Mikkel Svold:
Big responsibility.

Dan Bhanderi:
And yeah, well, that's the job. But coming home from that, finally it was installed, it was working. Of course, it was a very interesting commissioning part afterwards. But I took the day off and it was a sunny day and I just enjoyed it being, "Listen, it's in space, it's working, we did our job," and so many fantastic engineers behind that project all over Europe that contributed, and it was a success for all those people. And it ended so to speak from the engineering point of view that day. We launched it and it worked. That was fantastic. And a lot of load off the shoulders.

Torsten Neubert:
Maybe I can add that the first conference that we presented ASIM data next year, ESA was there too. It was a conference in Vienna, it's an annual conference of the European Geophysical Union. And so, we had a session where ASIM was presented. And there was one presentation after the other, lot of good data, a lot of different kind of science and behind me sat the science lead on the ESA side and the project manager of ASIM on the ESA side, they sat behind me. And they, I mean, they were in tears, they were moved. I mean, especially Matteo Tacconi, he's Italian so I don't know if that explains it, more emotional maybe.

Mikkel Svold:
Than the typical Dane, I guess.

Torsten Neubert:
Yeah, than the typical Dane, yeah. But anyway, he was totally moved by all this kind of science that came out of it and that made me realize that they have also invested a lot. You have to think that I understand that often they are not the bullies but they're-

Mikkel Svold:
Banging your head-

Torsten Neubert:
Yeah, you're banging your head I guess, "Oh my God, Matteo come on," and so on. But at that point I realized how much he's invested in it also and that we actually have pulled all in the same direction to make this happen.

Mikkel Svold:
You mentioned in future projects, and I think we should look a little bit into that, what are the aims for ASIM in the future and are there any new research coming up and also what other projects might be on the way?

Torsten Neubert:
Well, I can speak to that. ASIM as it is now is looking towards the limb, not towards nadir, not towards the earth as it did before. Now, it's looking towards the limb.

Mikkel Svold:
Which is?

Torsten Neubert:
Limb is the horizon. So, we think we'll see new things doing new signs, we've argued for that, but we'll see, it's quite new. This move is just a month or two months ago maybe. But for new projects, we've learned things from ASIM that are interesting. New signs, a lot of these blue discharges at the top of thunderstorm clouds. And here also Andreas Mogensen, the Danish astronaut comes into the picture because he actually made some really cool observations from the Space Station in 2015.

Torsten Neubert:
And we've used those observations together with our own to understand how powerful some of these cloud tops are as regards to what we call blue lightning. It's a special kind of lightning. Maybe I shouldn't even call it lightning but it's a mode of lightning and it's just sizzling and bubbling on top of many of these clouds. They actually have little factories that changes the atmospheric composition up there. So, our next project will look at that more carefully.

Mikkel Svold:
And his role in that will be? Andreas Mogensen's role?

Torsten Neubert:
Well, Andreas we hope will get up into space again within a year. That's what I hear unless this war with Russia is going to delay launch things. You know ISS is a collaboration with Russia and many other countries. So, this project I'm talking about is going to come up later, but it would be important for Andreas to do observations together with ASIM in this new position where it looks towards the horizon.

Mikkel Svold:
And for Terma's, what are your futures space ventures, or do you have anything planned right now?

Dan Bhanderi:
Well, we are always engaging in several space projects, that's our business. And it's great to have these scientific missions because they're always really interesting. And the most intriguing for us of course, is the engineering challenges that comes with of making such sophisticated equipment and making sure that it works. And we are looking really forward to, now the ASIM cameras and photometers had optics from Terma, but they were designed the distance when you're looking ISS straight down as they orbit altitude of ISS, which is 400 kilometers. Now, that things are happening much further away and we really would like to make the optics and the systems that are optimized to make great observations in that direction.

Mikkel Svold:
How much are you now going to be involved in this new position of ASIM and I guess, calibrating is not the right word, but on a distance, calibrating or preparing the instruments for this new position, how much are you involved in that?

Dan Bhanderi:
I mean, we need the scientists because they understand what the sensors are seeing. But then we can assist what the other knobs and things you can twist and tune inside the software, which is the only thing we can change from earth when it's already flying. But there's been a lot of support, I mean, the process to get it moved took almost a year where Terma had to look at the consequences of moving a location just with the environment and all different aspects. Also, the field of view and visiting vehicles and all kind of things that impact the mission just from engineering point of view. And that of course, now that we have moved and we did the commissioning, they checked out and we're doing well in the new location, it's mainly the scientists now that are tuning the algorithms to the new observations they see.

Mikkel Svold:
Okay. I think this is so interesting, but our time is running short, so we need to wrap it up a bit. If listeners want to know more about or to follow the ASIM project, Dan, where would you recommend that they look?

Dan Bhanderi:
Yeah. Well, I mean, both the DTU and Terma has websites with ASIM. There's also an asim.dk and with a Twitter channel as well that has some nice images and information about ASIM.

Mikkel Svold:
And then of course, look out in Nature and Science magazine, I guess.

Torsten Neubert:
Yeah, we have a science data center, ASIM Science Data Center that shows all the papers that come out and data and so on that you can follow ASIM progress, it's called asdc.space.dtu.dk.

Mikkel Svold:
There's plenty of resources for listeners to dig in if they want. Dan Bhanderi and Torsten Neubert, thank you so much for joining, it's been a pleasure. And to you dear listener, we'll have links to everything we've talked about, including the last ones here on terma.com. And if you do like this episode, don't forget to hit the subscribe button and please do leave us a comment and rate this episode so we can make sure to give you the coolest insight possible going forward from here. Thank you so much for listening.