Undergraduate Research Spotlight: Kaylee Champion

November 9, 2020

photo of kaylee championKaylee Champion, an aerospace engineering senior and Cockrell School of Engineering honors student, has been selected to receive a UT Austin Undergraduate Research Fellowship for her proposal, "Lorentz Force Perturbations on Non-Spherical Spacecraft." Learn more about Champion's experience as a student in the aerospace engineering program and the undergraduate research she is doing under the advisement of associate professor and Center for Space Research director, Srinivas Bettadpur.

Why did you choose to study aerospace engineering at UT Austin?

I’ve been interested in aerospace engineering for as long as I can remember. When I was four years old, I decided I wanted to be an astronaut like my favorite character Buzz Lightyear and I never really grew out of that. Growing up, I went to space camp in Huntsville, Alabama five times and during my junior year of high school I participated in a NASA program called High School Aerospace Scholars. This involved a sixteen-week online portion where we took lessons on STEM topics in relation to NASA and completed related projects and a week-long onsite experience at the NASA Johnson Space Center. I loved the program and it solidified my decision to major in aerospace engineering.

What do you enjoy most about this major?

I enjoy how many opportunities there are in this major to push the envelope of human technology and knowledge. For example, there are opportunities to research aspects of the space environment, improve spacecraft and rocket components and design aircraft, which are all challenging and exciting. Plus, the developed technology or new discoveries have the ability to benefit people in all aspects of life.

Tell us about the work you’ll be doing for this research project.

The space environment is complex and includes magnetic fields, meteors, debris and plasma. Plasma is estimated to make up around 99% of all known matter and impacts multiple facets of space travel such as radio wave propagation, damage to electronics and interference with other science. In addition, spacecraft interaction with plasma can lead to a charge on the spacecraft, which makes it subject to the Lorentz force. The Lorentz force is the electromagnetic force on a charged particle moving through a magnetic field, which is tantamount to a charged spacecraft traveling through Earth’s magnetic field. The Lorentz force perturbations, including orbital elements and lifetime changes has been modeled, but these have all used spherically shaped spacecraft to determine the Lorentz force. This is an issue because no modern spacecraft that utilizes the Lorentz force will be spherically shaped and the shape of the spacecraft complicates how it will charge. So, I am using NASCAP-2k, NASA’s spacecraft charging program, to model differently shaped spacecraft charging in LEO, GEO and interplanetary environments. The charging information will then be used to determine the Lorentz force perturbations in these environments and will lead to a better model of these perturbations.

How do you think this research can make a difference?

The process of finding the charge development on these satellites will lead to a better understanding of the dynamics of spacecraft charging and development of code useful for evaluating the Lorentz force with varying charge. The feasibility of using Lorentz force to propel and alter spacecraft trajectories has also been examined in multiple publications and has been deemed a viable option, so the results may help the development of this technology. In addition, the results found from modeling charging on these non-spherical shapes then might reveal peculiarities that arise while using real life objects and may spark ideas that can be used to design interesting flight experiments to understand more about space plasma.

What are your plans after graduation?

After graduation, I plan to get my Ph.D. in aerospace engineering and research the space environment.

Visualizing Research

Champion created these renderings of one of the GRACE-FO satellites in NASCAP-2k, NASA's spacecraft charging program. She charged the GRACE-FO satellite in the worst case auroral environment to determine the highest charge the satellite could achieve. Then, this information was used to determine the maximum Lorentz force on the satellites. This project is how Champion developed the idea for her current research project.

visualization of ambient plasma around spacecraft
This visualization shows a snapshot of the potential of the ambient plasma. Without the spacecraft, the plasma should have zero potential on a macroscopic scale, but when a charged satellite travels through the plasma it changes the potential through various interactions, including the creation of a plasma wake.
visualization of grace-fo satellite and potential surface elements
This visualization shows the potentials of the surface elements on the surface of the GRACE-FO satellite. The difference in potential is very small across the surface by design. However, on the front, or ram, side the potential is slightly higher. This represents one example of how a spacecraft can develop non-uniform surface potential.