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The students who shoot for the stars

Sam Wolson/Daily
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BY LARA ZADE

Published November 10, 2009

Space was sexy in the 60s. The decade is known for the Space Race, when the United States sent men to the moon in an effort to outstrip the Soviet Union in space exploration. Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. became national heroes. Armstrong’s famous quote — “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — reverberated in the heads of every U.S. citizen who witnessed his first step onto lunar soil on July 20, 1969.

Satellites the size of shoe boxes are much less expensive alternatives to traditional research equipment, which have opened up the opportunity for students to see their work go to space.
Sam Wolson/Daily
Aerospace graduates secures the top of their satellite, M-Cubed, during a demonstration in the S3FL labs.
Sam Wolson/Daily
Aerospace engineering students Kiko Dontchev and Ken Gmerek discuss the operation of the S3FL thermal vacuum chamber that emulates near space conditions to test the stability of equipment.
Sam Wolson/Daily
Stratospheric balloons carry “payloads” that include data-taking devices and a cell phone that aerospace engineering students use to be able to locate the equipment after the balloon lands.
Sam Wolson/Daily
Kiko Dontchev, an aerospace engineering graduate student, stands in front of packs containing stratospheric balloons that are launched to test equipment in near-space conditions, about 100,000 feet above the ground.
Sam Wolson/Daily

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Armstrong’s legendary steps would not have been possible without billions of dollars of federal funding poured into space research during the decade. Funding for NASA peaked in 1966, when 5.5 percent of the total federal budget was devoted to the program. The excitement surrounding the moon landing was reflected in both the public and political realms.

But federal funding for space research decreased dramatically in the early ‘70s, marking the end of the legendary Apollo program. Only one percent or less of the federal budget has been devoted to NASA since 1975.

Along with the decline in federal funding after Apollo, public opinion of NASA and the space program became tainted with the notion that the research is not worth the expense. People today are more inclined to see a rocket launch as tax dollars that are senselessly shot into space. But most Americans have an inaccurately high concept of how much government funding NASA receives, according to a study conducted by former Chief Historian Roger Launius in September 2001. In his presentation of the study at the NASA headquarters, Launius also noted that those polled had no idea of the breadth of projects and objectives NASA pursues outside of rocket launches.

The final frontier has lost its allure for the majority of Americans, which hinders the future of aerospace research. But the tide might be turning for the beleaguered field. While NASA hurts from a lack of funding and interest, the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University is thriving. With enrollment at a record high, more students than ever are buying into the Hollywood image of space exploration. And this is no mere theoretical education. Aerospace engineering students build the equipment that makes it to space and apply their ingenuity to make those projects cheaper and more practical. The scope aerospace research applications — from monitoring climate change to inventing household items — makes it clear that students need to pursue space research today to assure a strong America tomorrow.

A STAR AEROSPACE PROGRAM

The University has a long history of space research. When it was created in 1914, the Department of Aerospace Engineering was the first collegiate aeronautics program in the country. One of the best undergraduate research curriculums in the world, the aerospace engineering program allows students to work on the cutting edge of the field. Besides the renowned faculty and state-of-the-art facilities and equipment, student researchers are frequently afforded opportunities to collaborate with NASA and major players in commercial aeronautics.

Aerospace engineering consists of the design, construction and science of aircrafts and spacecrafts. Within the University, the program focuses on gas dynamics, structures and flight dynamics and control. It is a broad, interdisciplinary industry that includes all engineering departments that contribute to the study of spacecraft and flight — such as electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. Even though NASA may be shrinking, several different job opportunities still exist for the increasing number of students in the University’s program.

“We have reached an all-time high in our enrollment last year,” said Wei Shyy, the chairman of the Department of Aerospace Engineering.

The department has experienced a surge in student interest, increasing its enrollment from 210 in 2000 to 370 last year. The graduate program has also grown. Shyy attributes this growth to a shift in the industry. Many aerospace engineering jobs disappeared in the ‘70s when NASA downsized after ending the Apollo Project, but aeronautic companies in the commercial sphere that demanded the same skill set are growing.

But the rich history and prestige of the University’s program is also another likely factor in attracting students. Since its establishment, the Department of Aerospace Engineering has always been among the five best in the country. The program’s alumni include five astronauts who have orbited the earth and three who have gone to the moon. Such prestige not only lures students, but also Boeing and NASA, which visit on a regular basis to recruit students and sponsor projects.

“We are currently one of the most active and one of the most highly regarded departments in the country,” Shyy said. “We are in a very healthy situation because we interact with all of these agencies and we have been growing our site and our program.”

THE EVERYDAY VALUE OF SPACE RESEARCH

A couple footprints on the moon were far from the only products of the Space Age. If Americans realized all the everyday items they owe to aerospace engineering, they might be keener on funding for NASA. Smoke detectors, ear thermometers, modern braces that don’t set off metal detectors and scratch-resistant glasses are all byproducts of NASA research meant to make space travel safer and more convenient.

But even more important than scratch-resistant glasses is the impact that space research has had on environmentalism. When scientists are posed with an environmental question, engineers are able to provide them with methods to obtain the information they’re looking for. Satellites are key instruments in monitoring environmental phenomena because they enable researchers to view the earth on a global scale.

More specifically, satellites monitor images through remote sensing — depicting different spectrums of waves. Through this process, researchers can analyze the type of materials that are in a substance. In other words, remote sensing via satellites enables researchers to learn about the earth from far away. Scientists are able to research manmade pollutants and study their components more closely, which enables them to better predict the affects of such pollutants on the environment. They can also locate areas that are highly polluted and distinguish them from those that are less polluted.

STUDENT INNOVATION ON A PROFESSIONAL LEVEL

What happens when you combine eager, intelligent minds with access to state-of-the-art facilities and equipment? You’ll find the University’s Student Space Systems Fabrication Laboratory (S3FL). Created in the late ‘90s, the S3FL enables students to translate their theories into physical realities. The S3FL is run by students with faculty guidance, and it creates opportunities for hands on, open-ended projects that could be used by NASA or Boeing. Allowing 20-year-olds to work on satellites may sound crazy, but the magnitude of the projects they are devising and creating are equal to those that many graduate and post-doctorate students would be lucky to work on.

“Speaking as a (faculty advisor), I see it as a tremendous educational opportunity that prepares students beyond what can be accomplished in the classroom alone,” S3FL faculty advisor Brian Gilchrist said. “It provides the students with an opportunity to see what it really takes to make real things happen and get real things built and designed.”

There are typically 100 to 150 students involved in S3FL every year. The lab, located within the Space Research Building on North Campus, usually hosts six to seven projects simultaneously. Right now, much of the lab’s focus is on a project called Michigan Multipurpose Minisat (M-Cubed), through which students will launch a satellite into space to take high-definition photos of Earth. Another project, Radio Aurora Explorer (RAX), is a collaboration between S3FL students and SRI International, an independent research organization, to build a free-flying satellite to study space weather. It will be the first free-flying spacecraft worked on by students at the lab.

What makes these ambitious projects possible for undergraduate students is nanosatellite technology, which refers to a new type of satellite that is contained in a case about the size and shape of a tissue box called a CubeSat. The smaller the satellite is, the less it will cost to launch into space. Nanosatellites can also be attached to a NASA or private spacecraft that is being launched, in order to piggyback off another project and accomplish two different tasks with the same fuel.

But Engineering students at the University have taken it upon themselves to develop more ways to make space research cheaper. The NanoSat Pipeline is a learning model developed by aerospace engineering graduate students to establish a sustainable process for the production of nanosatellites on campus. The pipeline encompasses any engineering project on North Campus that creates technology that can be applied to the construction of nanosatellites, like batteries, which can be used or reused in the nanosatellites.

Both Shyy and Gilchrist agree that one of the most beneficial outcomes of S3FL and related programs is knowledge retention. Members and faculty urge eager freshmen to take part in a project at the lab, and in many cases, students become so passionate about their work that they stay involved with their projects throughout their undergraduate or even graduate education. Experienced researchers can then pass their knowledge on to younger students to help sustain the growth of the lab.

“When they come out after four years, or if they stay on for a Master’s after five years, these students have basically four or five years of hands-on, real-world experience to have on their résumés at the same time,” Gilchrist said.

AEROSPACE ENGINEERING IN ACTION

Kiko Dontchev, an aerospace engineering graduate student, is a self-proclaimed product of S3FL. Having joined the lab as a freshman, Dontchev is now the project manager of M-Cubed, a power and systems engineer for RAX and a member of the S3FL executive committee.

There’s a lot of pressure on students working on RAX and M-Cubed — as the lab’s first CubeSat missions, and the first to go through the pipeline, these projects will set the bar for future research at S3FL.

RAX, which started about a year ago, is the first National Science Foundation-funded NanoSat mission to study the irregularities of space weather. With RAX, the University and SRI International are about to leave their mark at a height of about 650 kilometers, which is twice as high as the International Space Station. The satellite will take just over a year to build, but it will orbit the earth for up to 30 years, providing data for one to five years. The entire mission costs $1 million and is set to launch in May 2010 from Kodiak, Alaska.

M-Cubed is unique in that it is the first CubeSat devised and created by University students. It’s about a year behind RAX in construction, but students are just as proud to see it launch. The primary mission objective of M-Cubed is to pave the way for future missions for nanosatellites to take images of the earth. Think Google Earth: the satellite will be able to provide real-time images of the earth, which can help to track environmental disasters like hurricanes and forest fires. M-Cubed is comprised of about 20 undergraduate students and 10 graduate students, who on top of building the equipment, must solicit grants to fund the project. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has supplied $40,000 and a proposal submitted to JPL by S3FL students could earn the project another $100,000.

“Our motto is, ‘If we build it, it will launch,’ ” Dontchev said.

Though CubeSat technology substantially decreases the cost of spacecraft launches, the satellites being sent into space are products of hard work, planning and considerable amounts of money. The solar panels on RAX, for example, are the most expensive component of the satellite, priced at $3,000 per panel. Thus, there is a definite risk associated with launching the spacecrafts. To reduce that risk factor, students at the S3FL perform various pre-launch tests to gauge how different components of the CubeSat will behave in near-space conditions.

Ken Gmerek, a junior in aerospace engineering, tests M-Cubed in the S3FL thermal vacuum chamber. The purpose of the vacuum chamber is to try parts of M-Cubed in specific near-space conditions: very low pressure with either very high or very low temperatures, a test called a thermal bakeout. Any kind of flight hardware will be tested in the thermal vacuum chamber. One interesting feature about the vacuum chamber is that it was built so that all of its components are totally reusable — only electricity and a cooling liquid are needed to make it run.

“We have to use reusable resources because we don’t have the money to spend that the (aeronautics) industry has,” Gmerek said.

High Altitude Solutions (HAS), another technique for testing in near-space conditions, requires students to launch a stratospheric balloon attached to a CubeSat about 100,000 feet into the air, where temperatures can dip as low as 60 degrees below zero. Once the launch happens, though, the real challenge is retrieving the valuable equipment. Think the movie “Twister.” The weather balloon climbs until it hits a jet stream in the atmosphere and heads west. Eventually, it pops, and the team following it on the ground drives quickly to retrieve thousands of dollars of equipment.

Though the team can decide where the balloon will launch, they can’t control its destination — which team members said has gotten them in awkward situations. During a launch in April 2008, the team had to persuade a prison to let them retrieve their balloon from the yard. And last spring, two female team members tracking the balloon to its landing spot on a farm were accosted by an intoxicated man in a pink dress who said they were trespassing on his property. He finally handed over the equipment, even after being denied a hug by the two retrievers.

But rather than discouraging students from tedious pre-launch protocols, accident-prone landings actually excite team members for the end goal.

“Damn, she’s fine,” Dontchev said, gazing proudly at the RAX CubeSat at S3FL. “It makes me tingle. You can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”


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