Preparing to launch two experiments

2/15/2024 Katelin Chong

Written by Katelin Chong

Rick Eason, seated, with Qi Lim and Michelle Zosky
Rick Eason, seated, with Qi Lim and Michelle Zosky

AE faculty member Michael Lembeck and his graduate student Rick Eason have been working with Paul Kwiat in the Physics department on a program called the Space Entanglement and Annealing QUantum Experiment, or SEAQUE.

“The overall goal for SEAQUE is to demonstrate new quantum communications technologies in space,” Eason said. “We're doing science that has previously been relegated to controlled conditions on an optics bench in a lab, and we are compressing that down to something about the size of a cereal box to launch to the International Space Station.”

The project will stay attached to ISS for up to a year before being brought back down to earth. That way, the team can examine the effects of it being exposed to the space environment.

“The big thing we get by going to the space station is that in low Earth orbit, we're exposed to a higher radiation environment than we see on the ground, and some of the equipment inside the box itself is subject to radiation damage — in particular, the photodetectors that are used in laser communications,” Lembeck said.

There are two primary experiments going on in SEAQUE, and they both have to do with quantum optics hardware. Currently, the project is being tested in a lab by Physics and Aerospace Engineering graduate students— putting it in space will change its environment drastically.

“One of the core components in quantum optics are devices called single photon detectors,” Eason said. “They're generally quite sensitive because they need to be to be able to detect single photon strikes. Cosmic rays can damage the detectors, increasing their noise level until they eventually become unusable. “

Michael F. Lembeck
Michael Lembeck

“The detectors, however, can be repaired,” Lembeck said. “By shining a high-powered laser into the detector, the atoms in its crystalline structure are excited. When we turn the laser back off, the atoms fall back into place repairing defects.”

Rick Eason with the Cool Annealing Payload Satellite, or CAPSat
Rick Eason with the Cool Annealing Payload Satellite, or CAPSat

Lembeck spent forty years in this industry developing payloads, space satellites, and large programs.

“Five years ago, I came back here to Illinois to give back a little bit with some of my experience,” he said. “I've been doing this all my life. What's different here now is that we're in a learning environment, so we still have to accommodate the ability make mistakes and still make our launch dates.

“I serve as the guardrails, keeping an eye out to make sure we don't fall off track, but still allowing students to learn from their lab experience— that's the important thing.”

Eason received his undergraduate degree at UIUC in electrical engineering in 2022 and is now pursuing a master’s degree in aerospace engineering. He was part of the Laboratory for Advanced Space Systems at Illinois and became the mission lead for Cool Annealing Payload Satellite. Eason says having an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering has greatly helped him in the professional field.

“Prior to me taking over a lot of the hardware work, almost all of the work was done by other electrical engineers,” he said. “A satellite is a box with a computer in it, right? Aerospace engineering is a specialized subfield of mechanical and systems engineering — because of that, a lot of the fundamentals of other fields of engineering are glossed over, arguably more than they should be.”

Lembeck states there is no one else in the world who has the experience this student team has.

“They're unique and will be in high demand in the quantum research areas,” he said.  SEAQUE is now scheduled for launch in September 2024.

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This story was published February 15, 2024.