Michael Hauge and his student colleagues from around the country were exuberant on their Zoom call as NASA live streamed the Perseverance rover landing on Mars on February 18, 2021. Witnessing the landing with his friends was as compelling and relevant as anything that could have happened in his life.
In 2019, the students were interning at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Some of Michael’s fellow interns worked on Perseverance, the latest rover in the Mars Exploration Program launched on July 30, 2020.
“It was very exciting to witness their work in action,” said Michael, a senior in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) at Princeton University.
Michael’s work as an intern at the lab was just as exciting. He was part of the WFIRST Coronagraph Instrument team, which is building an advanced coronagraph. Attached to a space telescope and made up of optical masks, prisms, detectors and mirrors, coronagraphs block out a star’s light and correct light distortions so planets around the star can be revealed.
Michael characterized and tested samples of black silicon to improve the manufacturing process of ultra-dark materials that enable coronagraphs to absorb as much unwanted light as possible.
Spacecraft Fascination: From Theory to Engineering
Michael, who grew up in Westfield, N.J., has long been captivated by space exploration. In elementary school, he visited the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., where he first observed a Mercury capsule on display. He was in awe of the cone-shaped, one-man capsule launched in the early 1960s and amazed at how such a seemingly simple spacecraft could carry an astronaut into space.
“It looked like a bucket made of bolts, metal and rivets, and I thought, ‘This thing right here took a person to space, and I’m standing right in front of it,’” Michael says. “It was an object of fascination for me.”
Michael comes from a family line of alumni. His sister, who graduated in 2018, is an orchestra teacher. His parents, from the Class of 1980, both earned law degrees. Michael also turned to Princeton when he realized it ranks among the top schools in the country for astrophysics and aerospace engineering.
During his first year at Princeton, he quickly gravitated toward the MAE Department, which largely focuses on designing, building and testing aircraft, satellites, engines and other vehicles and devices.
A 10-week MAE summer internship program in the summer before his sophomore year cinched his decision to major in mechanical and aerospace engineering, when he worked with a research group in the High Contrast Imaging Laboratory (HCI Lab), headed by N. Jeremy Kasdin, a professor who specializes in exoplanetary imaging.
Michael used his programming skills to integrate electrical, optical and mechanical components into a Python-based hardware-in-the-loop simulation of Starshade-telescope alignment and other dynamics.
Like with a coronagraph, the purpose of the Starshade is to block out starlight to discover exoplanetary systems. Only the Starshade, still under development by Northrop Grumman and JPL, will be much bigger and fly separately from the space telescope, unfurling its petals thousands of miles in front of a space telescope to eclipse stars as needed to reveal planets.
“It’s next to impossible to get an internship after only one year for most students,” Michael says. “But MAE offers this research internship to freshman and sophomore students to introduce them to work in a lab, and that really appealed to me.”
Early in his sophomore year, Michael found another hands-on astronautics project that, this time, would test his mechanical engineering capabilities. He worked on the extracurricular project as part of the Princeton ThinSat Team led by Mike Galvin, who met Michael during the summer internship.
Mike Galvin, technical support staff in HCI Lab, also works on grant-funded research projects as a space system design engineer. He established the Princeton ThinSat Program in 2018 to offer undergraduates a chance to fully develop a launchable satellite in less than one year.
“Similar to his software engineering capabilities and professional approach in his internship, Michael really took ownership of the ThinSat team project,” says Mike, who has been Michael’s mentor over the last four years.
About the size of a slice of bread, ThinSats are miniature satellites that transmit scientific sensor data from low Earth orbit (LEO) before burning up in the atmosphere in 4-7 days.
Michael fabricated circuit board components for the electronics payload, which is designed to test the survivability of rapidly prototyped circuits in the launch and space environments. The ThinSat was launched on February 20, two days after the Perseverance rover Mars landing.
Moving Full Tilt Ahead
Kicking up the challenge a notch, last summer Michael worked as an engineering intern at Venturi Astrolab, a California-based aerospace startup, through the Matthew Isakowitz Fellowship Program.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the three-month internship was conducted remotely. The company shipped a computer and all the necessary equipment to Michael’s New Jersey home.
He worked extensively on systems engineering and mechanical engineering projects related to Astrolab’s commercial lunar rover. Tasks ranged from analyzing power, communications and thermal management systems to contributing to detailed mechanical design of joints and other rover parts. The company relied extensively on his computational and design skills.
“In a short amount of time, Michael was required to learn an immense number of processes and software tools. He also had to study the moon and its harsh environment,” says Rius Billing, Astrolab technical fellow who has more than 30 years of space flight project experience. “He completed tasks that engineers with five years of experience would have trouble finishing as quickly and thoroughly as he did, especially in such a short time frame.”
“It was an incredible experience to learn from Rius and everyone on the team,” Michael says. “It’s fascinating to see firsthand how decisions are made, the nitty-gritty details, all the trade-offs and how professional engineers work through these problems.”
Last year as well, Michael worked on an independent project to design a CubeSat frame that could be manufactured in-house by students for a fraction of the commercial cost. CubeSats are also miniature satellites but larger and considerably more advanced than ThinSats.
“It’s no easy feat to develop a CubeSat frame that can be demonstrated by analysis to survive a violent launch and also accommodate all of our other CubeSat subsystems in a specified manner,” says Mike Galvin, who served as Michael’s project advisor. “Like with everything Michael does, he took the bull by the horns and approached it with the utmost professionalism. It’s like he’s a professional engineer already.”
Michael continues to run full tilt as graduation nears. For his undergraduate senior thesis, with Mike serving as his advisor once again, he created an advanced MATLAB-based software tool to simulate the attitude control of the CubeSat in a novel, low-cost way.
He’s now using the tool to design and build the CubeSat’s attitude control system. Considering the zero-gravity environment of space, attitude control (pointing a spacecraft in the correct orientation while it’s in orbit) is a complicated problem across all spacecraft systems.
“In one semester, Michael basically wrote his own version of an orbital dynamics simulator that’s more advanced than most comparable software packages on the market,” Mike says, adding that he plans to share Michael’s paper as an open-source thesis at upcoming CubeSat conferences.
As for next plans, Michael is considering graduate school, still intrigued by the stars, moon and planets, but moving forward in aerospace engineering as the vehicle of his passion.
“Theoretical science can be exciting—you’re always learning and discovering new things, Michael says. “But it’s very appealing to be able to build something that’s real and tangible.”
-- Jodi Frank