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A&A's Little to develop data science methods for plasma optimization

Amy Sprague
December 20, 2019

Justin Little

A&A's Justin Little received a Young Investigator Research Program Award through the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Sungyoung Ha, Curtis Promislow, and Anna Sheppard

SPACE Lab's Sungyoung Ha, Curtis Promislow, and Anna Sheppard in front of the Space Test Facility, a key piece of equipment for plasma testing that will interface with data science methods under Professor Little's recent award.

A&A professor Justin Little received a $450,000 Young Investigator Research Program (YIP) Award  through the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Little was one of only 40 scientists and engineers to receive the award nation-wide.

Little runs A&A’s Space Propulsion and Advanced Concepts Engineering (Space) Lab which explores the plasma physics of electric propulsion systems for space travel.  Little will use the YIP award to fund a Ph.D. student in A&A for three years to explore the intersection of data science and plasma physics. Specifically, the group will develop a method to rapidly optimize electric thrusters by taking data from high-speed plasma diagnostics and applying machine learning and data discovery algorithms.

Little notes, “Existing methods for optimizing electric thrusters rely on semi-empirical scaling laws and extensive experimental campaigns. In addition to being costly and time intensive, such methods are ineffective for new concepts with greater complexity. High-speed plasma diagnostics are commonly employed to understand electric thruster physics, however, the relationship between the resulting data and thruster performance is relatively opaque. Our aim is to see how emerging data science methods might be used along with high-speed sensor data to shed new light on the physics and performance of electric propulsion systems.”

One of the broader contributions of this research will be linking data science algorithms to real-world laboratory plasmas. Says Little, “We will be producing very large data sets and the trick will be developing the right analysis methods that are robust to the inherent uncertainties of laboratory measurements. The ability of such methods to distill large experimental data sets into new physical insight could have a broad impact on the field of plasma physics.”