The Night Sky is Just the Beginning for Student Intern at NASA Jet Propulsion Lab

NASA Jet Propulsion Lab intern Arthur Barriault

One would expect a student in Space Physics to have a passion for observing the night sky. Give that student a camera and place him in Prescott, Ariz., with some of the darkest night skies in the country and you have stunning astrophotography by Arthur Barriault, senior in Space Physics, interning at California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

“It all started my freshman year at Embry-Riddle. Now, I backpack to national parks and remote locations where there’s limited light pollution and spend hours photographing the sky,” said Barriault. “It’s amazing and inspiring.”

Prescott, Arizona, downtown sky

"His hobby paid off on his second day at JPL. Sitting around the lunch table, quietly in awe of some of the best engineering and physics minds in the country, the topic of astrophotography came up because of an Andromeda Galaxy image being shared. That turned into a lively discussion about what kind of system would be required to get you to the very galaxies and stars in Barriault’s images.

“I’ve been at JPL for almost a year and it’s been incredible,” said Barriault. “My office is in the lab where the Electronic Propulsion team works so I watch and take part in conducting cutting-edge experiments on different types of propulsion energy.”

Barriault’s extended internship has allowed him to work on two projects at JPL. The first project is “Hall Thruster Pole Piece Erosion Assessment”. Hall thrusters are a common type of electric propulsion system, one type of advanced propulsion system JPL’s exploring for deep space and Mars missions. Barriault’s on the team experimenting with the operational lifetime of Hall thrusters before erosion becomes the primary cause of thruster failure. As second author on the research, he is focused on pinpointing exactly when that failure point will happen.

The second project is funded through an internal JPL research grant awarded to Barriault and concerns the device used to measure the ion energies causing erosion of the Hall thrusters. Current technologies do not allow for the direct measurement of ion energies in the region where Barriault is interested.

Thruster firing at NASA Jet Propulsion Lab.

“I’ve been working to reduce the size of the device from one to two centimeters to something much smaller,” said Barriault. “It’s been challenging and exciting. Right now I’m in the fabrication phase and will begin testing later this spring.”

Data to be attained using Barriault’s work has already been accepted for presentation at this year’s American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics conference in July where the team will reveal his research on the ion energy measurement device and its measurements. He credits his supervisor for helping him achieve this honor and success in both projects.

“My supervisor has become my mentor. Out of one conversation he gave me a problem to solve and the freedom to solve it. He is always available but he lets me work,” said Barriault. “This is an excellent research environment.”

Barriault will finish with JPL this summer and return to Embry-Riddle Prescott in the fall for his final undergraduate semester.

“Embry-Riddle and this internship have been great for me,” said Barriault. “Physics taught me how to solve problems and design experiments. My courses in electrodynamics directly apply to the plasma physics of Hall thrusters I’ve been working on. Because of my experience at JPL I now know that I want to be a test engineer or a system engineer developing new spacecraft systems. I am excited to graduate this December and move on to graduate school.”

Find out more about Space Physics at Embry-Riddle.