Mechanical engineering professor Andrew Gadsden leads McMaster’s collaboration with NASA

Associate Professor Andrew Gadsden and his award-winning team built and programmed a robotic telescope mounting instrument subsystem for NASA’s air-LUSI project to measure moonlight.

In the light of the moon, we could see our own planet more clearly.

That’s the goal of NASA’s Airborne Lunar Spectral Irradiance, or air-LUSI, project, which sends a telescope flying at high altitudes to measure reflected moonlight.

This constant light source serves as a calibration reference, helping researchers improve the accuracy and consistency of measurements between Earth observation satellites.

At the center of the measurement process is ARTEMIS – the autonomous, robotic, telescope-mounted instrument subsystem designed, built and programmed by McMaster Associate Professor Andrew Gadsden and his team.

“The project itself is basically building a system to collect light from the moon at very high altitudes,” says Gadsden, co-principal investigator of the air-LUSI project.

Installing ARTEMIS in the back of a van for outdoor testing at NIST facilities in Gaithersburg, Maryland, June 2018.

His team was tasked with mounting a telescope to a stable platform on the pod of NASA’s ER-2 aircraft and creating an autonomous system to keep it pointed at the moon as the plane flies.

Armed with little more than the dimensions of the aircraft and the size of the telescope, which was built by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Gadsden and his team designed and machined ARTEMIS to s adapt to the wing nacelle.

The Air-LUSI telescope is calibrated by the artificial moon in the ER-2 hangar at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California. Credit: NASA Photo/Ken Ulbrich.

“The data is used by Earth observation satellites that NASA uses primarily for their climate change models, so it has a significant impact on improving our knowledge of our planet,” says Gadsden. As of 2019, the system has completed several successful flights as part of NASA’s satellite calibration and validation efforts. Its last data collection flight was last month.

“As researchers better understand what is really going on here, they can develop more accurate models to predict what will happen in the future.”

Andrew Gadden

Funded by NASA, the air-LUSI project was started at the University of Maryland, where Gadsden previously worked. The collaboration also involves team members from NIST, NASA and the US Geological Survey.

The international team recently received NASA’s 2021 Robert H. Goddard Prize in Science for developing and demonstrating the instrument.

“It’s a pretty prestigious award, so we were very happy to receive it,” says Gadsden.

Recognition of the merits of the project can help secure a new round of funding to enable the team to make system improvements and continue data collection.

He notes that the project provides master’s students with an excellent opportunity for training in aerospace instrumentation and a chance to work with prestigious organizations like NASA and NIST.