Hannah Gulick recognized for work on satellites being launched into space

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Monday, January 22, 2018

Hannah Gulick grew up wanting to be a writer. Then, while taking a project-based class during her sophomore year of high school in Spirit Lake, Iowa, she discovered astronomy.

“I was put in the gym with a star dome and told to learn the constellations and about nebulas and asteroids,” the University of Iowa sophomore says. “Then I took a college astronomy course through Iowa Lakes Community College and thought I could definitely see myself doing this and being able to benefit the field.”

The University of Iowa sophomore has wasted no time in making her mark not only on the UI campus, but on our galaxy and beyond. Before the end of her second year at the UI, two satellites on which she has worked will have been launched into space. In addition to those and other research projects, she also traveled to Norway in January 2018 to attend a five-day intensive “rocket school,” in which she and another undergraduate student learned how to design and build an instrument and successfully operate the instrument on a rocket after it has been launched.

Gulick’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed among UI faculty, and soon the wider community will also get to know her as part of the Dare to Discover campaign. The UI Office of Research and Economic Development campaign showcases researchers, scholars, and creators from across campus, including through a series of banners throughout downtown Iowa City, which will go start going up in early February. Along with her photo, Gulick’s banner will include the tagline, “Builds instruments for space.”

Philip Kaaret, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, nominated Gulick for the campaign primarily based on her work with him on HaloSat, a UI collaboration with NASA to build a satellite equipped with X-ray detectors to find baryonic matter.

“There’s this problem in astronomy known as the missing baryon problem,” Gulick says. “Baryons are just normal matter—what we’re all made out of, what this table is made out of, what stars and galaxies are made out of. But when you look at the sky, we only know where half of it is right now. So, we’re looking for this matter.”

HaloSat will look for these subatomic particles within the huge halos of hot gas that surround galaxies. The cube satellite, which is the size of a loaf of bread, will contain three X-ray detectors. Gulick helped build the instrument and participated in its thermal, vacuum, and alignment testing. She also worked on some of the coding and data analysis.

The satellite will launch in late spring 2018 on a resupply mission to the International Space Station from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Gulick plans to attend the launch with other members of the team.

“I’ve learned so much on this project,” Gulick says. “It’s also opened so many other doors for me. It’s everything I wanted to do coming into college. Getting to work on space instrumentation, solving problems with something I helped build—that’s the dream for me.”

These experiences were exactly what Gulick says she was looking for during her college search.

“I applied to five schools, but while visiting Iowa’s campus, I got to speak to some professors and they really had an interest in me and my future success,” Gulick says. “That’s why I chose Iowa.”

Kaaret says he tries to catch talented students early on, and Gulick came highly recommended by fellow faculty when he was looking for undergraduates to help with HaloSat.

“She’s very hardworking and smart. You give her a project and she’ll just go ahead and do it,” Kaaret says. “I find bright students tend to work better if you throw them into a project instead of spoon-feeding things to them. They prefer being put into a position where they need to be fast learners.”

All those who work with Gulick comment her passion and drive to get involved.

“She definitely knows where she wants to be in a few years,” says Anna Zajczyk, a postdoctoral researcher from Kolbudy, Poland, who is working with Kaaret on HaloSat. “You can see it in how she works and what’s she’s doing. She listens to instructions, asks questions, and is very thorough, which was crucial in all the things we tasked her with.”

Daniel LaRocca, a second-year graduate student in physics and astronomy from Palatine, Illinois, who is also working on HaloSat, agrees.

“Her work ethic is pretty amazing,” LaRocca says. “Someone will say, ‘I’ve got this task I need someone to do,’ and she’ll be the first to volunteer.”

LaRocca says sometimes those tasks weren’t always very fun, such as the time Gulick spent hours hand-sanding some parts that didn’t quite fit the way they were supposed to. That wasn’t the only time she stepped up to do something others didn’t want to do.

“Phil (Kaaret) mentioned that we should get certified in ham radio, and we were all like, ‘Sure,’ but no one did, except Hannah,” LaRocca says. “She said, ‘I’ll get this app and study and take the test.’ Now she’s certified.”

Having an amateur radio operator license is coming in handy on another satellite project: the HERCI instrument on the Fox-1D CubeSat, which was launched Jan. 11, 2018, on an Indian rocket. Kaaret says Gulick will use ham radio at the UI’s ground control station on the roof of Van Allen Hall to receive and analyze data from the satellite. She also may command the satellite.

Along with school work and research projects, Gulick also finds time to advocate for women in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. She’s visited Girl Scout Troops with fellow UI students and talked to schoolchildren back home in Spirit Lake while on break.

Through it all, Gulick’s love of writing hasn’t lessened. Along with a BS in astronomy and physics, she’s also working toward a BA in English and creative writing and participates in poetry groups and readings.

However, Gulick says astronomy is her future. She plans to go on to get a PhD and dreams of becoming a research astrophysicist for NASA. While she’s not 100 percent in which specific area yet, “anything in astronomy makes me happy.”