We want to continue our highlight of the individuals and their experiences working here with Rubicon Space Systems, at Plasma Processes LLC. This time, we are highlighting Nathan Daniel, our Electrical Systems Engineer. Nathan’s website bio reads…
“Nathan Daniel joins the Rubicon team at Plasma Processes LLC as Lead Electrical Systems Engineer. He is an adept electrical engineer with expertise in embedded systems and space propulsion systems. Nathan holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Tennessee Tech University and a master’s in aerospace engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. His past projects include controller development, modeling, and testing of propulsion systems for the Lunar Flashlight, SunRISE, VISORS, and SwarmEX missions. He is interested in printed circuit board design, performance modeling, flight software development, and control systems design.”
But we’d like to say more about Nathan and the value he helps create here with us. We’ve asked Nathan to share that story in his own words in an interview with our Director of Propulsion, Daniel Cavender.
Daniel: Nathan, will you tell readers what your role is here at Rubicon?
Nathan: I’m an Electrical Systems Engineer. I design electronic controllers for propulsion systems, build test support equipment, and consult on electrical design of ASCENT thrusters. I also occasionally help with conceptual design of cold-gas systems since I have some experience in that area from my time at Georgia Tech.
Daniel: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Nathan: I have been interested in space and electronics since I was a little kid and am thrilled to be working in that field at a great company like Rubicon. In my off time I enjoy running Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, performing with Huntsville area music ensembles, and playing with my two kittens.
Daniel: What is it that got you started on SmallSat propulsion?
Nathan: I was influenced by my graduate school advisor, Glenn Lightsey, who has a strong interest in emerging technologies with the potential to lower costs and increase access to space. As a high-cost, high-risk field with huge benefits for spacecraft operations, propulsion was one of these key areas. My background in electronics design and 3D printing allowed me to quickly jump into the exciting propulsion system development work going on at Georgia Tech, a good deal of which Rubicon Space Systems was also involved in.
Daniel: You've worked on a few propulsion systems. Will you tell us a little bit about them? Did each one have their own challenges?
Nathan: The Lunar Flashlight Propulsion System controller was my first prop project. In addition to trying to fit a lot of functionality into one small controller, our team had to contend with the complexities of thermal performance and power limitations. It was also my first time using the F-Prime flight software framework, which - despite generating high-quality flight software - has a significant learning curve.
Later, I simultaneously managed the electronics and software design for a few cold gas systems including SunRISE, VISORS, and SwarmEX. These three formation-flying missions used very similarly designed cold-gas propulsion systems. However, designing electronics that could accommodate all three sets of project requirements still turned out to be challenging. At the system level, our team encountered a number of issues with leaks, valve performance, and cleanliness – areas of which I had little knowledge at the time. The experience taught me a lot about the things that can go wrong on propulsion systems, and I’ve been able to carry that knowledge forward to the projects I am working on now.
Daniel: You recently oversaw the environmental qualification of the Sprite propulsion system's controller. What can you tell us about that experience? Was this familiar territory for you or did it push your professional development?
Nathan: I’ve participated in acceptance and qualification testing of controllers before, but the new facet for me this time was serving in a remote management role. I had to learn how to provide support, push schedule and project goals, and make go/no-go decisions without having my hands on the hardware or the keyboard.
Daniel: Many graduates with your sort of experience accept offers from JPL, Blue Origin, SpaceX, or other larger companies. But you've joined our small business. What brought you to Rubicon?
Nathan: I’m definitely more of a small business kind of guy. During my time at larger labs, I haven’t always been a fan of becoming stuck in one particular role. At Rubicon, I’m able to have a hand in every project and to work at multiple levels of engineering, from conceptual design to hands-on hardware fabrication. However, as a division of Plasma Processes, Rubicon has access to many resources and business or technical contacts that a typical startup might not have. This allows us to pursue engineering solutions without compromising quality for cost. Overall, it’s a really excellent, fast-paced, interesting environment for a young engineer to be in.
Daniel: What's next for you at Rubicon? What can you say about the projects you are working now, and what we may see in the future?
Nathan: We have a lot of exciting work in development. The project that currently occupies a lot of my time is a 28V controller which pushes the boundaries of what our systems have worked with before but enables compatibility with significantly larger spacecraft.
Daniel: Thanks, Nathan for sharing some of your story with everyone.
Nathan: Of course! I’m always happy to talk more about my experiences and the interesting work that I do, and to help put a spotlight on the field of spacecraft propulsion. We are part of a very technically challenging field with an exciting future!