Zach Gonnsen Credit: NASA
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Zach Gonnsen: Designing and Testing Space Station Laser Comms

By Katrina Lee

October 18, 2022

In 2023, SpaceX will launch a cargo resupply mission and bring NASA's Integrated LCRD Low-Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal (ILLUMA-T) to the International Space Station. ILLUMA-T will use laser communications to demonstrate advanced communications capabilities on the space station.

Once installed, ILLUMA-T will gather data and send that information to NASA's Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD). LCRD will then send this information to ground stations in Haleakala, Hawaii, and Table Mountain, California. Together, ILLUMA-T and LCRD are demonstrating the benefits of laser communications, which can send more data in a single link than standard radio frequency systems.

The mission's lead systems engineer, Zach Gonnsen, has been tasked with overseeing the design and build of ILLUMA-T. Gonnsen joined the ILLUMA-T team in 2017 and began working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory to design and build the terminal.

In July 2022, the terminal arrived at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where Gonnsen and the team initiated a full testing campaign to observe how the terminal would respond to launch conditions, radiation levels, and temperature variations in orbit.

"ILLUMA-T is really the next step in infusing laser communications. LCRD set a good baseline for us. ILLUMA-T will utilize LCRD's hardware that's currently in space and show that satellites in low Earth orbit can benefit from using laser communications," said Gonnsen. "Together, they will become the first low-Earth-orbit to geosynchronous orbit laser communications connection."

In September 2022, Gonnsen and his team took the payload through electromagnetic interference testing. This test ensures that the electromagnetic noise emitted by the payload will not interfere with other instruments on the space station and that ILLUMA-T is not susceptible to noise present in the environment. Next, the payload will undergo thermal vacuum testing, which exposes the terminal to harsh temperatures.

Once ILLUMA-T passes all of its pre-launch tests, it will be transported to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. There, it will be integrated into the SpaceX Cargo Dragon and placed onto a Falcon 9 rocket.

Gonnsen will be there every step of the way.

His story with NASA began at Goddard in 2006 as a summer intern. For three consecutive summers, Gonnsen worked on software that tested the efficiency of data encoding algorithms for NASA's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) tool, an instrument inside the Mars Curiosity rover.

In 2010, Gonnsen graduated from the University of Maryland with a Bachelor of Science in aerospace engineering and began as a full-time engineer for NASA.

In his 12 years with the agency, Gonnsen has worked on many projects, including the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA) - an instrument central to the European Space Agency's ExoMars Rover and Surface Platform that detects and characterizes organic molecules on Mars. Gonnsen has also assisted in various proposal efforts including work on the Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI) mission - a surface probe to study the origin and evolution of Venus.

When asked about his work, Gonnsen said he loves being a part of Goddard because of the variety of projects and missions.

"There's always so much going on. There is such a wide variety of people and backgrounds here that you can't find at other places. Every day you can find something totally new that is going on at Goddard and somebody is an expert in it. It's always amazing to talk to them and learn something new," said Gonnsen.