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Space Dynamics Lab Completes Space Environment Tests for AWE

February 6, 2023

SDL engineers work on the AWE telescope in a cleanroom at SDL facilities on USU's Innovation Campus in North Logan. AWE's four telescopes and aperture baffle are shown in this image. (Photo Credit: SDL/Allison Bills)

Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory announced that it has successfully completed critical space environment tests for NASA’s Atmospheric Waves Experiment, known as AWE. Planned for launch to the International Space Station, AWE will study gravity waves in Earth’s atmosphere to gain a deeper knowledge of the connections caused by climate systems throughout our atmosphere and between the atmosphere and space.

From its unique vantage point on the ISS, AWE will look directly down into Earth’s atmosphere to study how gravity waves travel through the upper atmosphere. Data collected by AWE will enable scientists to determine the physics and characteristics of atmospheric gravity waves and how terrestrial weather influences the ionosphere, which can affect communication with satellites.

The AWE mission is focused on understanding gravity waves in Earth’s atmosphere at altitudes between 50 and 500 kilometers, called the ionosphere-thermosphere-mesosphere system. Space weather in this region, the ionosphere in particular, can significantly disrupt space-based communication systems we rely on due to the high concentration of electrically charged particles. By studying atmospheric gravity waves, scientists will understand more about how Earth’s weather influences upper atmospheric properties.

Atmospheric gravity waves are pulses of air primarily formed by weather disturbances on Earth, such as strong thunderstorms, hurricanes, or winds rushing skyward over massive mountain ranges. They eventually deposit their energy, like an ocean wave breaking on the beach, as they ripple upward into the ionosphere. From low Earth orbit, about 400 kilometers above us, AWE will scan Earth using an imaging radiometer and produce high-quality temperature maps of atmospheric gravity waves near the mesopause, the mesosphere’s upper boundary. With this information, scientists can estimate the broader role of gravity waves in the ionosphere-thermosphere-mesosphere region.

Satellites that enable communications, banking, navigation, entertainment, and many more applications can be disrupted by impacts from atmospheric gravity waves and from adverse space weather. New knowledge from AWE will help scientists more accurately forecast the impact on satellite communications from atmospheric gravity waves and space weather while allowing mission planners and satellite operators to plan contingencies.

“AWE is a highly sensitive, precise science instrument designed to be fitted on the International Space Station and operate in the harsh space environment. To ensure that AWE will survive launch turbulence and operate as designed once in space, SDL put the instrument through its paces on the ground,” said Burt Lamborn, AWE project manager at SDL. “The successful completion of the AWE environmental testing is another major milestone that illustrates our commitment to ensuring the success of important missions for NASA. SDL’s dedicated men and women have worked with NASA for more than five decades to explore, innovate, and inspire.”

Electromagnetic Interference/Electromagnetic Compatibility

The AWE instrument underwent electromagnetic interference/electromagnetic compatibility testing to ensure it does not produce or emit electromagnetic signals that could interfere with other equipment onboard the ISS, and to verify that interference from the ISS will not impair AWE’s ability to produce data. The AWE payload was heavily monitored in a special anechoic chamber for any emissions emanating from the instrument’s structure or cabling. In addition, AWE was subjected to a variety of high-level noise sources to ensure performance across a large band of frequencies. Tests were also performed to verify ruggedness and reliability, electrostatic discharge, and voltage spikes.


To verify and demonstrate that the AWE Opto-Mechanical Assembly and Instrument Electronics Box can survive the vibration-intense launch into space, both assemblies were subjected to vibration and strength validation testing. These tests were successfully completed using a shaker table that simulated the predicted launch vibration that AWE will experience.

Thermal Vacuum

Thermal vacuum testing was conducted to demonstrate the performance and operation of the AWE instrument in a simulated flight environment. The instrument was thermal cycled between specific hot and cold temperature extremes to ensure it can survive the harsh space environment. Testing was also completed to verify AWE’s thermal control system at flight temperatures and to collect instrument telemetry. The thermal control system proved to be capable of maintaining the AWE instrument at the temperatures required for successful imaging and science data collection.


SDL engineers performed a full-system calibration to verify that the instrument meets mission requirements and to demonstrate its performance and limitations under operational conditions. Calibration also provides the means to convert AWE’s raw instrument output to usable data that is traceable to known standards.

Headquartered on Utah State University’s Innovation Campus in North Logan, UT, the Space Dynamics Laboratory is a nonprofit organization and a Department of Defense University Affiliated Research Center owned by USU. More than 1,000 dedicated SDL engineers, scientists, business professionals, and student employees solve technical challenges faced by the military, science community, and industry and support NASA’s vision to explore the secrets of the universe for the benefit of all. SDL has field offices in Albuquerque, NM; Chantilly, VA; Dayton, OH; Huntsville, AL; Ogden, UT; and Stafford, VA. For more information, visit

AWE Opto-Mechanical Assembly
SDL Mechanical Engineer Matt Ralphs and Mechanical Engineering Associate Dave Griffin are shown in this image working on AWE's Opto-Mechanical Assembly in a cleanroom at SDL facilities on Innovation Campus. (Photo Credit: SDL/Allison Bills)
AWE Test Facility
SDL Electro-Optical Engineer Kendra Schuettpelz is shown here with AWE in SDL's stray light test facility. AWE’s four telescopes and aperture baffle can be seen in this image. (Photo Credit: SDL/Allison Bills)


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