Goddard Space Center
Greenbelt, MD
www.nasa.gov/goddard
Insaco
Quakertown, PA
www.insaco.com
DISSIPATION mission’s Principal Investigator Mehdi Benna before launch. (Image: NASA/Goddard Spaceflight Center)

On Nov. 8, 2023, a two-stage NASA Sounding Rocket flew skyward shortly after midnight carrying science instruments to gather data about the behavior of Earth’s upper atmosphere.

The mission, named DISSIPATION, is aimed at learning how charged solar wind particles dissipate their energy in the high-latitude ionosphere-thermosphere. That region is about 62 to 186 miles above the surface and at latitudes above 65 degrees. DISSIPATION is a mission that will enable NASA to better understand how the energy imparted by solar winds into the atmosphere is dispersed. This process is part of what creates the auroras and has large implications in space weather predictions.

The project, Modular Spectrometer for Atmosphere and Ionosphere Characterization (MoSAIC), required a mass spectrometer that could achieve high mechanical precision and stability enveloped within a high degree of electrical insulation. (Image: NASA/Goddard Spaceflight Center)

Mehdi Benna, an aeronomist and planetary scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, is the mission’s principal investigator.

“It was an exciting but nerve-racking experience,” Benna said. “The countdown had to be precisely timed to target the peak of the auroral activities, which lasted less than 30 minutes from its growth to recovery phase. The last four minutes of the countdown felt like hours as we waited for the last items on the launch checklist to be completed before the rocket could lift off.”

Several Insaco sapphire parts were used on the MoSAIC. (Image: Insaco)

Understanding the energy dissipation mechanism will help explain processes that create high-latitude wind in Earth’s upper atmosphere near the edge of space. That wind has a significant role in space weather because it influences the regulation and redistribution of mass, momentum, and energy in the ionosphere-thermosphere around the planet. Improved space weather forecasting has become increasingly important to operators of satellites, communication and navigation systems, and power grids, all of which can be damaged or disrupted by space weather.

In the case of the Goddard project, Insaco manufactured custom tooling to meet the unique part specifications provided by NASA. (Image: Insaco)

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center had presented a challenging scenario to Insaco. The project, Modular Spectrometer for Atmosphere and Ionosphere Characterization (MoSAIC), required a mass spectrometer that could achieve high mechanical precision and stability enveloped within a high degree of electrical insulation. After an in-depth series of testing multiple materials, sapphire was selected as the most effective material choice for the design parameters. More specifically, Insaco’s team of engineers and advanced machining capabilities enabled Insaco to machine the sapphire to NASA’s extremely exacting specifications necessary for MoSAIC to work properly.

Insaco’s machined sapphire parts were used inside the MoSAIC instrument to provide high mechanical precision and electrical insulation. Additionally, sapphire was also used as the core for the high-frequency/high-power transformers and inductors in the MoSAIC electronics panels. The mechanical precision and stability of these cores were key for achieving the measurement sensitivity and stability required for the mission.

Several Insaco sapphire parts were used on the MoSAIC. The MoSAIC instrument that flew on DISSIPATION is also a prototype unit of the instruments being built by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center for the Geospace Dynamics Constellation, a set of six satellites that will orbit Earth in the early 2030s to conduct similar studies of the upper atmosphere.

Sapphire machining is a highly specialized process used to transform this exceptionally hard and brittle material into precise and intricate components, such as the ones used by NASA. Sapphire material was chosen due to its ability to withstand extreme temperatures and pressures, making it suitable in applications such as the DISSIPATION mission.

Insaco has been machining Sapphire and other hard materials since 1947. Insaco’s ability to meet challenging geometries and tight tolerances is due to their investment in high-accuracy CNC machines and metrology equipment. In the case of the Goddard project, Insaco manufactured custom tooling to meet the unique part specifications provided by NASA. Insaco’s experienced engineers and machinists played an integral role in delivering components that met the exact tolerances and parameters NASA required for the DISSIPATION mission.

“Insaco was selected to provide the sapphire parts based on their longstanding history of delivering quality sapphire parts that met performance requirements on previous incarnations of our mass spectrometers,” said Mitchell Hamann, the Lead Mechanical Engineer for MoSAIC.

This article was contributed by Insaco (Quakertown, PA). For more information, visit here .