BYU students design telescope



    A nine-year project to design and build a soft X-ray telescope aimed at the sun, has provided a laboratory to learn about holding onto dreams, teamwork and problem solving.

    Students involved with project GoldHelox (“Gold” for the color of the sun and “Helox” for Helios Observations in X-rays) say they have gained far more than just physics and engineering wisdom.

    GoldHelox is designed to photograph the soft X-rays emitted by the sun in an effort to study solar winds and solar flares that may affect certain phenomenons taking place on the earth. Students will gain insightful data from GoldHelox when it is launched with a NASA space shuttle in the summer of 1998.

    As an undergraduate in 1988, James Maxwell decided to devote himself to making something happen after he attended a presentation on X-ray optics and learned of an opportunity NASA was offering to put experiments on a shuttle, he said.

    Not losing the faith of youth is important because with the skepticism of age, Maxwell said he is not sure he would have taken the GoldHelox project seriously.

    “After all, how on earth could four students, with finite stays at BYU, put together an expensive experiment that could go on the premier space vehicle of all time,” Maxwell said.

    At the time, professors were even a bit skeptical, Maxwell said. Nine years later, assistant manager of the project and graduate student in physics, Maureen Hintz, said she too has sensed some of the faculty’s skepticism.

    GoldHelox is completely run by students, Hintz said. The faculty at BYU are strictly for resource purposes, she said. The faculty has been especially helpful with funding of the project beyond the $100,000 grant from NASA. The College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences has awarded GoldHelox over $15,000 to complete the construction of the telescope.

    Further funding is currently being sought for the testing of GoldHelox after it is fully assembled, team leaders said.

    The project soon expanded to include nearly 20 students, he said. Maxwell said students from engineering and those who had interest were recruited.

    Though the first test flight of the telescope failed, there was still much that was learned from the attempt.

    “The flight was important, because it proved that within one year, a group of students could construct the essence of an important experiment, and rather than give it up, more students joined,” Maxwell said.

    Today, the project is managed by Pete Roming who started on the project six-and-a-half years ago as an undergraduate in physics. He is currently working on a doctorate in astrophysics. Both he and systems integrator Mark Spute, who had his first encounter with GoldHelox in 1992, said physics is a somewhat solitary field.

    Before working on GoldHelox, he had never experienced so many different situations that required him to interact in different ways, Roming said. As manager of the entire GoldHelox team, Roming said he has learned the importance of people skills in dealing with the other students, BYU faculty and people involved with the funding of GoldHelox. It was he and Hintz that wrote the proposal to the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences for the $15,000.

    As a physicist he would rather work solo or as a dictator, Spute said. He realizes, however, one cannot work in a team that way. Spute’s experiences as systems integrator have helped him become a better manager, he said. A former physics graduate, Spute is currently employed at Ultra Tek. His interest in space exploration and GoldHelox drew him back to BYU to help see the project through.

    Since he has had prior management experience before working as systems integrator, Spute said his perspective is perhaps a unique one. As systems integrator, he oversees the entire production of the telescope. It is up to him to see that all the different parts being created by the different teams fit together in the end.

    Students working on the GoldHelox project are divided into individual teams which have specific responsibilities for the construction of the telescope. The teams include mechanical, electrical and optical. Each team has a team leader who attends weekly meetings with the managers and systems integrators.

    Hintz, the assistant manager, said she feels a responsibility to all the team members in showing them how the different parts fit together as a whole.

    “I help them see the importance of what they are doing by trying to show them the whole picture,” Hintz said.

    The biggest challenge Spute has seen comes from the most dedicated people who have their own agendas, he said. The trial, then, is gently to steer those people back to the team goals, he said.

    Those who work alone are less likely to mesh with the rest of the project, Hintz said. With three different teams, working with others is essential.

    When Hintz first worked on GoldHelox in 1992 on the optical team, she said much of the time she felt like she was working by herself. Hintz said she wishes that she had asked for more help. Now as assistant manager, Hintz does what she can to help the team members not feel alone.

    “When people feel overwhelmed, they are less effective,” Hintz said.

    As optical team leader, Tierra Lloyd has learned to be more sensitive toward others, she said. She remembers not understanding all of the technical terms when she first started working on GoldHelox. Now that she is a team leader, Lloyd tries to speak in layman’s terms to make the project less intimidating, she said.

    Mechanical team leader Craig Schafer is a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. GoldHelox has given him real life experience, he said.

    “In the classroom, I learned the concepts but didn’t learn how to tackle the problems,” Schafer said.

    As students, nobody knows all of the answers. Making contacts with professionals and the manufacturers of different parts used in the telescope is necessary, he said.

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