Seeing Sound in Space

Bosch research scientist Jonathan Macoskey is the lead on a project that is being used to predict malfunctions on the International Space Station and solve them before they occur.

Sometimes, it is rocket science.

Mt. Lebanon native Jonathan Macoskey, class of 2011, is the Payload Design Lead for Bosch’s SoundSee Mission, that will provide autonomous acoustic monitoring for crew members on the International Space Station (ISS). If that sounds like gibberish to you, don’t worry—us too. More simply, Macoskey is the head research scientist on a project that designed a device that will listen to the sounds inside the ISS and predict future mechanical malfunctions before they become critical.

“It’s a new type of technology … people have spent a lot of time researching vision, but not as much time in sound. This technology has potential to really help people,” says Macoskey, who envisions possible terrestrial applications for this new sound technology, including assembly line and residential home monitoring.

The lunchbox-sized SoundSee module safely completed its maiden voyage to the International Space Station on Saturday, November 2, 2019, on Northrup Grumman’s Cygnus NG-12 resupply mission. It took off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia, and by the time this is published, ISS crew members hope to have it installed on the Astrobee—a robot designed by NASA Ames in California, which is a free-flying vehicle capable of navigating throughout the station. This will make the astronauts’ jobs easier, as they previously had to use a handheld device to perform regular acoustic scans. Bosch partnered with NASA and Astrobotic—another Pittsburgh-based company— throughout the process to design the device and prepare it for launch.

Now that SoundSee has a home on the ISS, it will start fulfilling its purpose by performing acoustic scans to create—and regularly update—an acoustic map of the station. The device will also perform deep audio analytics on the treadmill and the environmental control and life support system for mechanical error and leak detection.

The SoundSee project began in September 2017 as a Rubik’s-cube-sized paper model. Since then, it has undergone numerous iterations, all prepared in Bosch’s SoundSee Mission Research and Development Facility in the Strip District, which includes a live feed monitor of the ISS, a mockup ISS module, a small anechoic chamber and a ground control station that will connect directly with the astronauts on the ISS.

“This is not all that our group does,” says Macoskey. “SoundSee is a pure research project. We also do a lot of work within other Bosch groups to develop technology in the building security and automotive industries … Imagine a consumer holding up a smart phone to diagnose an issue with their car. Or equipping a car with the technology to [monitor sounds] and diagnose itself.”

Macoskey got involved with the SoundSee Mission as part of an internship with Bosch in May 2018. He stayed on the project while completing doctorates in biomedical engineering and scientific computing at the University of Michigan in 2019, when they hired him as a full-time research scientist. He also earned his master’s in biomedical engineering at Michigan and a bachelor’s in biomedical engineering at the University of Rochester.

But his love for STEAM subjects began at Mt. Lebanon High School, where Tom Jackson’s advanced precalculus class sparked his interest in math, and Michael Gullo, his AP environmental geoscience teacher, introduced him to the idea of science’s applications in outer space.

“In high school, I didn’t think research, math or getting your Ph.D. was cool, and I didn’t understand the opportunities they present,” says Macoskey. “Going to grad school doesn’t mean you will just be a professor. Getting your Ph.D. doesn’t mean you will just be a doctor … I never envisioned I would do anything space-related. So my advice is to look for different opportunities throughout your education. Follow what things you think are interesting, and you’ll find those things work out pretty nicely.”