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NASA Awards Professor $4.6 Million to Test New Antenna


For Doctor David Long, applications of space exploration and technology reach much further than learning about stars and other planets. In fact, over the past many years, he has researched using antennas to learn more about the earth and its conditions.

As a result, Dr. Long, an electrical engineering professor, and his team of BYU students, engineers at the Goddard Space Center, and persons from private industry, received at $4.6 million grant to test a new antenna they designed. This antenna would acquire information about the earth’s soil moisture.

Dr. Long explained, “We’re specifically looking at trying to improve the technology of measuring soil moisture (the amount of water in the soil) from space. Soil moisture is really important for things like crops, droughts, and those sorts of things.”

Currently NASA is orbiting a device called the SMAP (Soil Moisture Mapping Mission) which has been measuring the soil moisture. Long and his group hope that this new antenna will replace the SMAP when it is retired.

This large, new antenna, spanning 9-meters in diameter, will differ from the SMAP in a few major ways.

Dr. Long said, “We’re building an antenna that’s much smaller, lighter, cheaper and easier to spin. It has a lens that the sensor can look through. This antenna design is based on something called metamaterials, so we are building a lens out of a flat mesh that has embedded meta-elements in it. It makes a very small, lightweight antenna compared to the rather heavy structures they’ve flown before.”

At this point in the grant, Long and his team are testing the antenna through computer modeling. They plan to build and test a scale model of the antenna. The tests results will be critical to writing a future proposal to present to NASA in three years, when the contract ends.

“We’re going to be using some fancy test facilities at Goddard and NASA Aims to test the deployment—how this flat lens will deploy and we’ll be doing antenna ranges and electrical measurements of it, as well as mechanical tests,” Dr. Long explained.

As the Principal Investigator (PI) and manager of the overall system, Dr. Long looks forward to the results of the study. If the antenna performs as expected, measuring soil moisture from space will become much more effective and inexpensive. The lens antenna technology can also be used for other sensors and applications.