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ESL 75th Anniversary Feature: Christopher Ball

Christopher BallAs scientific collaborations between The Ohio State University and government/industry grow, ElectroScience Lab (ESL) Research Scientist Christopher Ball performs a key role.

“Everything I do contains some fairly substantial collaboration,” Ball said. “(ESL is) kind of the glue that brings it all together and makes it work.”

Located on Kinnear Road, ESL often combines research efforts with entities such as NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center or Jet Propulsion Lab, along with Blue Canyon Technologies in Colorado, Battelle in Columbus, or other regional scientific agencies.

Ball is part of an ESL research team that recently won $1.2 million in NASA funding as part of the Advanced Information Systems Technology (AIST) program. In addition, the group received $5.6 million in 2015 from NASA’s Science Mission Directorate to lead the development of NASA’s CubeSat Radiometer Radio Frequency Interference Technology Validation (CubeRRT) project.

CubeSats are satellites small enough to fit in the palm of the hand, or as big as a large shoebox, designed to test new technologies in space. NASA is exploring new launch options through the commercial small spacecraft industry in order to fast track many of these technologies.

“A CubeSAT is a relatively inexpensive platform on which to do research in space that was not available just a few years ago. That is a very exciting thing,” Ball said. “You can have multiple CubeSATs in a constellation of sensors, or whatever their function might be, and explore how to get that constellation to work together optimally.”

For example, as humans expand their technological presence across the globe, the growth of manmade radio transmissions is making it increasingly difficult to detect Earth's naturally-occurring microwave radiation. CubeRRT provides new advancements in radio frequency interference (RFI) technology to help separate the manmade signals from the natural.

Ball said CubeRRT is a good stepping stone for ESL to get into this larger world of space-based sensing and communications from CubeSAT platforms. The CubeRRT team developed a software simulator to optimize the operation of the satellite, based on resource constraints like power and downlink data rates.

Ball said their work, led by Principal Investigator and ECE Chair/Professor Joel Johnson, will enable new ways for NASA to use satellites for Earth science research.

“Our project proposes new software tools to optimize the operation of adaptive sensors so that you can change their configuration on the fly,” Ball said. “The idea is, let’s say with a radar, you can change the pulse rate or the waveform you are sending out based on the circumstances you are in. That’s an adaptable reconfiguration. You are taking models of the orbit of the satellite, and models of the sensor it has on it that is looking at Earth, and models of Earth and your target, figuring out how to make that sensor adaptable to simulate how you are going to change or optimize its performance over the course of an orbit.”

Another element to AIST, Ball said, involves constellations of sensors, scattered in different locations, and optimizing this multi-body problem.

“You may or may not have control of the location of things, but you know how they operate,” he said. “This way, you can schedule different sensors at different times to track and collect data.”

When it comes to this research, Ball said the ESL team is starting with what they know.

“We’re looking at radars and microwave radiometers, which is what CubeRRT is. But it is broader than that. We could be looking at optical systems. Hyperspectral imaging is one technology that I play with. In a nutshell, that represents new directions for a place like ESL,” he said.

ESL continues to expand upon its historic innovations through other projects. Ball is developing a new gas sensor for the EPA, which uses millimeter wave spectroscopy to detect very small amounts of gaseous pollutants in air samples – specifically formaldehyde. The team also works in collaboration with the Ohio State Physics Department and Battelle.

“The sensor itself is very broad. We can detect lots of airborne chemicals. Specifically, formaldehyde is a problem because there are established methods for collecting and analyzing air samples to look for formaldehyde, but those methods are inadequate,” Ball said. “We are working on a method that allows us to get a direct measurement in near real-time in the field, rather than what they do now, which is collect a sample and take it back to the lab a month later to get a result.”

This is another way ESL remains innovative, Ball said, because it is as prone to work with industry on new technologies as other departments or centers at Ohio State.

For the EPA, he said the team is essentially taking a project previously developed for DARPA, focusing it toward another application outside of the defense sphere. If commercialized, this could create a stream of revenue to work on the next generation version.

“I think ESL is uniquely positioned to refocus established technologies to different application areas, which opens up new opportunities,” Ball said.