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UD junior Timothy “TJ” Tomaszewski is the leader of a UD student team working with NASA to build and launch Delaware’s first orbital spacecraft. He holds a model of a CubeSat, a small modular satellite, which the students will create to study how the sun affects the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
UD junior Timothy “TJ” Tomaszewski is the leader of a UD student team working with NASA to build and launch Delaware’s first orbital spacecraft. He holds a model of a CubeSat, a small modular satellite, which the students will create to study how the sun affects the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Out-of-this-world leadership

Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and courtesy of TJ Tomaszewski

Junior TJ Tomaszewski leads student team making Delaware history in space

When he was just 4 or 5 years old, Timothy “TJ” Tomaszewski lay in the grass one warm summer evening mesmerized by the glowing full moon and the stars moving across the sky.

“I clearly remember taking it all in, the majesty of the night sky and space and what might be up there … space has always symbolized the future to me,” he said.

The University of Delaware junior’s future includes making history as leader of UD’s Delaware Atmospheric Plasma Probe Experiment (DAPPEr) team, which will build the state’s first spacecraft to orbit the Earth.

Funded by NASA, the group of 18 undergraduates and two graduate students will create a three-unit CubeSat, a small satellite about the size of a loaf of bread that uses a standard size and form and standardized parts, to study how the sun affects the Earth’s upper atmosphere. It is one of 10 satellites being built at institutions in eight states to have the opportunity to be placed into orbit. Launch is scheduled for early to mid-2026.

“It’s always been part of my makeup and my goal to work with space science, preferably at NASA where I can work on rockets,” he said. “And now I have this incredible opportunity to lead a mission — to have a team and build something that we send into space.”

“TJ was a driving force behind this launch proposal,” said Bennett Maruca, associate professor of physics and astronomy and DAPPEr faculty adviser. 

As NASA has very stringent application requirements, outlined in a 74-page guidebook, the group had to think through all of the intricate details on how they would build, manage and run the satellite.  

The team endured two reviews, including a grueling four-hour meeting, of the project’s merit and feasibility, after which one of the members on the review panel called it “the best student mission he had ever reviewed,” according to Maruca, who also directs the Delaware Space Observation Center.

Tomaszewski holds a model of one CubeSat unit. The DAPPEr team’s final product will include three units holding equipment to measure the sun’s impact on Earth’s upper atmosphere.
Tomaszewski holds a model of one CubeSat unit. The DAPPEr team’s final product will include three units holding equipment to measure the sun’s impact on Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Hands-on, real-world experiences

Tomaszewski, an honors physics major with a concentration in astrophysics, chose UD for its “incredible physics program, strong space science program and the genuine nature of the campus,” he said.

“For an institution of modest size, UD punches above its weight and has a big presence,” Maruca said of the research opportunities for UD students. “We are involved in a lot of missions. We have great instrumentalists and theorists, and we all collaborate closely, allowing us to have leadership roles in half a dozen NASA missions right now.”

As a first-year student, Tomaszewski jumped into various outreach projects, demonstrating his skills and dedication to the program. He was part of this year’s RockSat-C mission team, which developed an experiment to measure the density and temperature of ionospheric electrons that was launched on a sounding rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on June 20. The group is still processing the data, but preliminary analysis shows the experiment successfully measured Earth’s lower outer atmosphere.  

Tomaszewski in front of the sounding rocket that carried UD’s RockSatC experiment into the Earth’s upper atmosphere on June 20. The RockSatC team is still processing the data but called the mission a success.

Tomaszewski cited his research experience and his Intro to Physics class with Maruca as opening the door to the place in which he finds himself today.

Maruca quickly recognized Tomaszewski’s leadership potential when, early in the semester, he took it upon himself to organize the students before and during class.

“TJ would lead games of hangman before class began, and it came to symbolize the semester,” Maruca said. “He is a natural, and his leadership, collaboration and organizational skills shone through."

When Maruca offered him the leadership position on the DAPPEr project, Tomaszewski didn’t hesitate.

“Ben had faith in my abilities, and I’m doing my best to get this project going,” he said. “I’m thankful for the opportunity and for the team — I’m nothing without them.” 

Team effort and challenges

Tomaszewski is acutely aware of the fact that he and the DAPPEr team are making history for the University, as well as the state, and recognizes that his team’s collaborative nature makes it all possible.

“We’ve all worked insane hours … many long nights … but we’re making all this happen,” he said.

The UD team, consisting of physicists and mechanical, electrical, computer and biomedical engineers, is building the electrical boards from scratch and designing the entire computer code the same way. The CubeSat will carry two Langmuir probes to measure electron density and temperature and to map the structure of plasma in the ionosphere, the upper reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere.

“This mission is very important for understanding the way the sun and earth interact,” Tomaszewski said. “The sun’s solar wind can interact with the Earth’s atmosphere and cause problems for us here on Earth, including collapse of our power grid.”

Team members will meet regularly with NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative team to guide them through the project and help find an appropriate launch vehicle NASA refers to as a “rideshare,” Maruca said. 

UD’s student team for NASA’s annual RockSatC mission with the experiment they created to measure the density and temperature of ionospheric electrons as a function of altitude. The experiment was launched on a sounding rocket from the Wallops Island Flight Facility on June 20. Bennett Maruca, physics professor and the team’s faculty adviser, is on the right.
UD’s student team for NASA’s annual RockSatC mission with the experiment they created to measure the density and temperature of ionospheric electrons as a function of altitude. The experiment was launched on a sounding rocket from the Wallops Island Flight Facility on June 20. Bennett Maruca, physics professor and the team’s faculty adviser, is on the right.

The active education of the team members, almost all of whom are undergraduates, is one of the primary objectives of the DAPPEr project.

“We are all learning something new by building the satellite and learning about plasma physics. We are learning by doing,” Tomaszewski said.

The challenges inherent in designing and building anything new are magnified many times over when doing the same for materials intended for space travel.

“The environment is so much harsher than what we’re used to, and we need to account for the extremes — an almost complete vacuum, wild temperature changes, and radiation exposure that can really impact your electronics,” Tomaszewski said. “There’s also the weird realization that outside of any software issues you can’t go and fix the satellite. Once we launch, it’s going to orbit above us at 17,000mph out of reach. So, we need to take our time to do things right and test and build the best we can before launch.”

Maruca is convinced that Tomaszewski will go far in his chosen field.  

“TJ is an invaluable leader, and I can’t imagine doing this project without him,” Maruca said. “I’ve never met a student with stronger instincts for scientific leadership and management. His type of attention to detail in an industry where little things can cause total system failure is critical.”

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