The planet Jupiter taught Megan Birch something that she never stopped pursuing.
That is her passion for astronomy and astrophysics.
It all started when Lake Ripley Elementary School teacher Kris Zemek assigned then third-grader Birch a project that involved learning about Jupiter.
“Ever since then, I knew I wanted to do something with astronomy,” Birch said recently.
By the time she was in her junior year of high school, Birch was studying college-level physics. What's more, during her studies at the University of Minnesota, she helped create a cube satellite that NASA will launch into space in early November.
“When I think of (Birch) back then, I remember an incredible student,” Zemek said. “Every day she came to school, it was easy to see how excited she was to be there. Her excitement spread throughout the entire class… When it came to her (space) research topic… there were so many things she wanted to learn about. She finally decided on Jupiter. She dove into the research. She found more than the required number of facts… She had great details of the facts and the drawings…”
Birch also enjoyed physics lessons during her junior year at Litchfield High School under science teacher Ryan Kadow.
"He incorporated a lot of astronomy in his physics lectures," she said.
In turn, Kadow remembered an engaged student.
"Megan was that rare high school student that was (a) thinking, curious human," Kadow said. "When we studied stoichiometry she discovered her own, much simpler, way to convert masses of reactant to masses of product. She would come in with lots of questions about how something we studied related to something she had read about or was curious about. Of course, sometimes overthinking isn't helpful. One day, she was very confused by the presence of vacuums in space (vacuum cleaners as opposed to the absence of particles), but on the whole I've had very few students like Megan since she graduated and more's the pity."
While Birch was double majoring in astrophysics and physics at the University of Minnesota, she was part of the University’s Small Satellite Project, which included a team of faculty and students from various departments. There, Birch contributed to the development of a cube satellite — a size of a shoebox — that is set to launch to space Nov. 2 from NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
The satellite, SOCRATES, is made up of a solar flare detector and a mechanism aimed at developing a better GPS. Birch primarily worked on building the detector, which will lead to groundbreaking discoveries, she said.
“We’re looking at something that not a lot of people know about,” Birch said. “Solar flares happen when the magnetic field of the sun (reconnect), it shoots out (photons). And we don’t know why this happens. It’s really helpful to understand solar flares because (they) affect us on Earth. If we can sense that a huge solar flare coming, we turn off all our electronics and all of our systems that solar flare could affect, so they don’t get ruined.”
The other aspect of the satellite is devoted to improving the accuracy and consistency of the GPS, which is made possible by satellites synchronizing time with a pulsar star. A GPS that uses a pulsar star as a reference for navigation will also help with future space exploration, Birch said.
“This pulsar star (spins),” Birch explained, “and they have jets that are released from the poles. And when it spins, the jets act as an airport light that spins around, and it’s very consistent time. So we see this flashlight blinking and we can actually record the time and get a better synchronization for time. And once we have more than one satellite up there — that the university will make — we can actually do the same thing with a location as well. So we can determine location — kind of like GPS does — in orbit.”
Birch has worked on the cube satellite project for two years and it’s been the best undergrad experience she could ever ask for, she said.
“It is really cool to say you worked on a satellite in undergrad and it’s already in orbit,” Birch added. “Not a lot of people get to say that. It’s been a great experience… I’ve worked on a NASA base in Texas, and I don’t know of anyone else who’s done that. And on top of that, all the hands-on experience that I received from this.”
The practical experience opened further doors for Birch. She received a full-time job at Georgia Tech Research Institute working in an optics lab, and a full-ride scholarship for obtaining her master's degree.
“So they have a bunch of different projects that Department of Defense gives them, and stuff that I have to work on — dealing with optics,” she said. “For example, they have a system where they fly a plane over the ocean, and they use lasers to look at bacteria in the ocean.”
Seeing her daughter go to Georgia wasn’t easy for Desiree Birch, but she knows that it’s vital for Megan to continue to advance her career.
“As long as Megan’s been here, she never backs down from a challenge,” her mother said. “Classes in college were really, really hard, but she pushed through and did great. I am so very happy for her, so proud of her, this is a very great opportunity there, but inside I am sad to see her go.”