SIP, ESC, NSN, Profile, employee spotlight 

Intern Explores Big Networking Improvements for Small Satellites

By Katherine Schauer

June 30, 2021

2021 SIP Intern Ethan Abele Credit: NASA

Ethan Abele makes good use of his summers.

In 2018, Abele scaled the Great Wall of China, traveling with his sister around China’s countryside. In 2019, Abele served as lead engineer at industrial automation startup Wavetech, LLC, programming a state-of-the-art manufacturing line for energy services giant Baker Hughes. And in 2020, like most of the world, Abele spent time at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This summer, Abele is a member of the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) Internship Project (SIP) based out of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. For ten weeks, Abele is working with NASA professionals on real agency projects, providing a fresh and youthful perspective to networking and space communications.

For his summer project, Abele is working with NASA’s Near Space Network, which provides essential communications and navigation services to missions near-Earth, within 2 million kilometers, through a blend of government and commercial service providers. Specifically, Abele is investigating network support solutions for five upcoming Near Space Network-supported CubeSat missions. CubeSats, a type of small satellite, are a cost-effective platform for technology demonstrations, space science, and a host of other applications.

Abele will document networking solutions and provide coverage simulations for the missions. The five CubeSats that Abele and his mentors are studying have the same type of radio and communicate on S-band frequencies. His team is hoping to publish their findings in a technical paper for the upcoming 2022 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Aerospace Conference.

Abele became interested in engineering as a high school student, participating in extracurricular electronics and optics courses that prepared him to excel in college and at internships like SIP. After graduating high school in 2010, Abele entered Oklahoma State University’s (OSU) electrical engineering program, graduating with a bachelor’s in 2014 and a master’s in 2016. Now, Abele is in the OSU Ph.D. program, working on his thesis in ultrafast optoelectronics and optical communication.

In addition to his internship with SCaN, Abele interacts with NASA through the Oklahoma State University Established Program to Simulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) Grant “Robust and High-Data-Rate Hybrid Radio Frequency/Optical Communications for Lunar Missions.” Through this grant, Abele works on NASA networking capabilities, investigating communications architectures, optimal communications switching methods, atmospheric effects on data transmissions, and more for missions using both radio frequency and optical communications.

The grant’s goal is to increase mission data rates while maintaining reliability. While radio frequency has been used for missions since the start of space exploration, optical communications uses infrared light rather than radio waves and can send back more data in a single transmission. By advancing switching methods, the aerospace community can refine its communications capabilities.

“I appreciate both the internship and the grant work because they allow me to see real-world applications beyond abstract math and physics,” said Abele. “One of my mentors told me once, ‘If you can only explain the math and not how the concept impacts the world around you, then you don’t understand it enough.’ I think this is a valuable statement that many can apply to their own learning and work.”

Abele is working on his project from his home in Oklahoma. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NASA internships are being conducted virtually for a second year. Despite this, Abele will still engage with the other 39 SIP interns through networking events, resume-building workshops, simulated activities, and more. SIP encourages students to make connections with both NASA experts and peers, giving students the professional social skills needed to one day enter the workforce.

Outside work, Abele likes to participate in extracurriculars that inspire young adults to pursue careers in engineering. For the past few years he has been a judge for the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Oklahoma Regional Robotics Competition. The competition challenges teams of high school students to design, program, and build a robot that completes mission objectives.

Beyond engineering, Abele often goes hiking and kayaking, seeking out local trails and lakes for a nice day in nature.