Engineering Students Launch Experiment Into Space

SOCORRO, N.M. September 27, 2011– A team of mechanical engineering students successfully launched a structural health monitoring experiment into space last spring, thanks to support from the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium.

Led by 2011 graduates Will Reiser and Brandon Runnels, the mechanical engineers designed and built from scratch a set of structural sensing experiments that successfully collected data about structural integrity during sub-orbital space flight. Other students on the team were Stephen Marinsek, Chris White, David Siler and Richard Sansom. Team advisor, Dr. Andrei Zagrai, associate professor of mechanical engineering, said he was impressed with the undergraduate student team, which included six undergraduate students from the junior-senior design clinic and two graduate students. Team advisor, Dr. Andrei Zagrai, associate professor of mechanical engineering, said he was impressed with the student team. He also acknowledged essential contribution of two graduate students, Abraham Light-Marquez and Andrew Murray.

  Brandon Runnels talks about preparations for the May 2011 launch of a mechanical engineering experiment to test how sensors behave in space.  Videos and photos by Dr. Andrei Zagrai

“This launch is a tremendous and very unique opportunity. Very few students on the planet are given the chance to launch an experiment into space,” Zagrai said. “Here in the U.S., students have a broad range of educational opportunities that may not be available in other parts of the world.”

Reiser and Runnels said they were excited to have flown an experiment into suborbit.

“When I was a kid, if someone told me that I’d launch things into space, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Reiser said.

“I’m kind of surprised it worked,” Runnels said. “So many things could have gone wrong that we couldn’t test for.”

Zagrai didn’t seem too surprised by the team’s success.

The space launch test team (from left) is Chris White, Brandon Runnels, Will Reiser, David Siler and Richard Sansom. Not pictured is Stephen Marinsek.

The completed project just before getting sealed and delivered to the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium.  The experiment worked and Dr. Zagrai and the students expect to publish their results and deliver reports at conferences.

“This shows the quality of students we have at New Mexico Tech,” he said. “This was a very challenging experiment. I’m proud of both the undergraduates and the grad students.”

Zagrai said he hopes this is just the first space launch for Tech students. He also hopes this experience will help promote the new Aerospace Engineering program offered through the Mechanical Engineering Department.

On the day of the launch, Zagrai and several students attended the event at the New Mexico Spaceport. The rocket blasted off early in the morning, accelerating to more than 15G and achieving 73.5 miles of altitude during its 13-minute flight. Within an hour of the launch, flight engineers had recovered the rocket.

Zagrai said the critical moment was when the flight engineers disassembled the rocket as students and other spectators from around New Mexico watched.

“Will got our payload and showed me flashing lights – an indication that we have collected structural integrity data during spaceflight,” Zagrai said. “He was smiling and very happy.”

The students’ task was to design and build a sensor system that can monitor the structural integrity of a spacecraft’s bolted joints during lift-off, space flight and return to Earth, Zagrai said.

The students installed a series of piezoelectric sensors and one magnetoelastic sensor within a payload canister. The sensors were paired with hardware, power system, and software algorithms to enable real-time data collection and storage. The team employed and installed an accelerometer to serve as a triggering mechanism to turn on the device after launch.

“Embeddable piezoelectric sensors get used in structural health monitoring systems for aeronautical, land and navy vehicles,” Reiser said. “But not in space. We're the first to use both piezoelectric and magnetoelastic types of sensors in this kind of experiment.”

The undergraduate project focused on 11 piezoelectric sensors, which were installed to gather data about the tension – or tightness – of four bolts. Three of the bolts were tightened to full tension; one was at half tension. The experiment aimed to see if the sensors would function in space in the same manner they functioned in the lab. The graduate students designed the magnetoelastic sensor system and collected acousto-elastic data, while the undergrads assembled the entire project.

“The students did mechanical design, system integration and wiring,” Zagrai said. “They came up with a unique circuitry to enable magnetoelastic sensing and triggering flight experiments. And they did outstanding work here. Everything from concept to implementation is high quality work that has potential to substantially impact space industry.”

  The May 2011 rocket launch at the New Mexico Spaceport, which carried an experiment designed and built by New Mexico Tech students.

The team worked feverishly to meet the final design review in February and payload delivery early March. Zagrai and several students attended the launch at the N.M. Space port in late May.

The Space Grant Consortium and the rocket company engineers had given the Tech team very detailed specifications for height, weight and center of mass for their experiment. Each year, the Consortium permits students – from university level through middle schools – to send experiments into space. The flight included experiments from 26 middle schools, four high schools, New Mexico State University and New Mexico Tech. Details can be found at

“Three aspects distinguish the payload flown by New Mexico Tech,” Zagrai said. “A set of unique, never-flown-before, structural health monitoring experiments that will make contributions to both science and engineering, a payload design developed and implemented by mechanical engineering students, and in-house testing and assembly of the payload that, again, was done entirely by students. Consider, these aren’t NASA engineers. For students, real spacecraft payload design, testing, integration and successful launch is quite an accomplishment.”

Reiser said the team had to make several last minute adjustments as they realized that they had made miscalculations and needed to correct them.

The Tech team collaborated with engineers from Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Air Force Research Lab’s Space Vehicle Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base. The Engineering Institute at Los Alamos National Laboratory provided hardware and software for electromechanical impedance measurements, which Tech students modified to enable experiments in space. Air Force engineers offered valuable advice on payload design and sensor shielding. Additional funding for the project was provided by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and New Mexico Tech’s Aerospace Engineering program.

Zagrai, whose specialty is sensor systems and structural health monitoring, said this experiment will have broad-ranging application within the space flight industry. He pointed to a number of historic spacecraft failures as examples of the need to equip space vehicles with structural health monitoring systems.

“We could have structural sensors that tell you if a component was damaged during spacecraft assembly, delivery or launch” he said. “You could make a knowledgeable decision about launching that structural component and possibly avoiding major disaster during launch.

Zagrai used an analogy of an automobile. When a car starts breaking down, vehicle’s sensor system, the owner (or a mechanic) can examine the car for problems. With satellites, space telescopes, and other spaceships, in-orbit maintenance is typically cost-prohibitive.

“Space structures are different than submarines, planes, ships or cars,” Zagrai said. “After you launch, there’s no point of service. Now, we know we can monitor structures before and after the launch to assess spaceship craftsmanship and structural performance during space operation.”

Runnels said the team plans to publish in professional journals and present their findings at conferences, so they can share their results with other researchers.

“In previous papers, authors assumed what sensor behavior in space would look like,” Runnels said. “Now there is proof. We can tell that these sensors can detect the dynamics of components during flight.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech