Interns with a telescope at the Goddard Geophysical and Astronomical Observatory, Summer 2019. From left to right: Victoria Wu, Meghna Sitaram, John Speer, Armen Caroglanian. Credit: NASA/Robert Lafon
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Growing Confidence, Sparking Innovation

NASA Intern Meghna Sitaram Develops Software for Goddard Observatory

By Catherine Tresslar

July 20, 2020

Meghna Sitaram returns to NASA for her second summer with the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) Internship Project (SIP); though she returns to the same team, the current COVID-19 pandemic makes this summer look much different than her last.

Her workspace has shifted from a lab at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, to working in her living room at home. Instead of eating lunch in the Goddard cafeteria with her peers, she takes breaks with her pet bird for company. But even though she’s not in the lab, she still devotes her time to research and software development.

Sitaram interns with the Goddard Geophysical and Astronomical Observatory (GGAO) under the mentorship of Armen Caroglanian and Victoria Wu. Her team is working toward the goal of creating a ground terminal for optical communications at the GGAO.

Last year, Sitaram’s team created an optical setup, using lasers to simulate satellite characteristics and motions as they appear on an optical ground station telescope. Using an automated mirror from precision positioning technology vendor Zaber, Sitaram and her team performed several lab tests that mimicked satellite movement to test the satellite tracking software of the telescope.

This summer, Sitaram is developing software to perform coordinate transformations for the telescope. The terminal will serve as a testbed for different optical communication technologies, which offer higher data rates than comparable radio systems. Sitaram is working on python code that transfers coordinates in the sky onto a camera, allowing it to track and point at the location of satellites at those coordinates.

What most sets this summer apart for Sitaram is less tangible — and has nothing to do with the current pandemic. She approaches her project with a new confidence in her skillset and value at NASA.

Sitaram is a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park. She earned bachelor’s degrees in both physics and astronomy. Her interdisciplinary background has been an asset to her team at the GGAO, but Sitaram used to see it as a barrier to her success at NASA.

“Last year I experienced imposter syndrome,” said Sitaram. “I felt as if everyone had a computer science or engineering background — there were few interns studying physics or astronomy. There were a lot of things I didn’t know that everyone else seemed to know about.

“This year, I was able to assure myself that having a different background is not a weakness — it’s an asset. I was chosen for my particular project because of knowledge that I have.”

Sitaram cannot help but feel nostalgic about her last summer on Goddard’s campus, even as she flourishes in the virtual environment. She recalls her favorite memories of evenings tracking satellites through telescopes and taking “crazy clear, zoomed-in pictures of stars and the Moon.”

Though she misses campus, Sitaram is still having a great summer. The sense of community and support she knew in her past internship at Goddard has stayed the same with the help of enhanced SIP programming.

“People have been super friendly,” said Sitaram. “Everyone wants to be helpful to the interns and is willing to tell you what they are working on or hear about what you are working on.

“The supportive atmosphere has stayed, even in the virtual environment.”

Sitaram also noted ways the virtual summer has sparked opportunities for innovation within her project. Her team is creating a simulation of their ground terminal’s eventual set-up, something they would not have done were they to intern on campus. This simulation will set this effort up for success when the center reopens.

“The virtual summer has us thinking about a lot of things that we need to do in the future and looking farther ahead,” says Sitaram.

In the fall, Sitaram will attend Columbia University, where she will pursue a doctoral degree in astrophysics. Outside of NASA and academia, she has a wide range of interests. She loves to read, play the violin, and go for runs around her hometown of Chatham, New Jersey.