Amanda Gates, Summer Intern at Idaho National Laboratory

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A summer in the life of a USD engineering student can span a broad range of activities, challenges and triumphs that may ultimately shape a lifetime. For Amanda Gates, a senior in mechanical engineering, spending the summer of 2015 at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) is shaping up to be a memorable experience indeed.

Amanda is working as a Radioisotope Power Systems Program Intern at an isolated site located in the desert roughly 40 miles outside of Idaho Falls. Her department, Radioisotope Power Systems, works with radioactive materials at specialized facilities located at the desert site. The rest of INL is located in the City of Idaho Falls.

Gates explains, “Luckily, they have nice commuter buses that cart us out to the site every morning. I have to catch mine at 6:10 am every morning. “ She continues, “I get home around 6:30 so they are long days, but the people I work with make the days go by fast! It’s an incredible group of bright engineers with a family feel.”

She has been tasked to work on Lightweight Radioisotope Heater Units (LWRHUs). The LWRHUs are heat sources designed to maintain temperature for important components on deep space explorations. Though the LWRHUs were not used on the New Horizon’s mission, they were used on the Voyager missions and Pioneer 10 and 11. In fact, they continue to produce heat for the Voyager missions that were sent out to space in 1977. There’s a 2020 mission to Mars scheduled but it is unclear whether the LWRU's will be used for that mission.

“It’s a really exciting time in my department to be around the people who helped make the New Horizons mission happen. We even attended an invitation-only Pluto party to watch the live feed of the NASA conference on it.” Gates continues, “To be around some of the engineers involved in New Horizons and sharing this experience with them was something I'll always carry with me.”

When asked how her education and experience prepared her for the internship, she cited her hands-on machine shop experience, mentors, fellow engineers and USD faculty as significant contributing factors. “I love knowing I have a network of intelligent engineers I can go to about anything. I can picture myself here (INL) after I graduate. I am passionate about space exploration and it’s been reinforced by this internship,” Gates said.