| A diagram of the soon-to-be-built instrument designed to monitor the health of space vehicles.
“Students are involved in all aspects of the project management,” Zagrai said. “You won’t be able to find a better opportunity to do really practical research.”
Ben Cooper is a master’s student who is advising the undergraduate team from the Mechanical Engineering Department. His research specialty is structural health monitoring and he is working with the Air Force Research Lab on his thesis.
“Just a year ago, I never would have imagined that I’d be working on an experiment that would be launched into space,” he said. “We’re learning the whole system and integrating all individual aspects into the payload. It’s a challenge.”
The student teams are designing a suborbital payload that will monitors how spacecraft structures behave during lift-off, space flight, re-entry and landing. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is in charge of overseeing commercial space flight, is especially interested in developing sensor technologies for spacecraft condition assessment and qualification for flight, Zagrai said. In fact, the FAA contributed a portion of funds for development of New Mexico Tech payload.
“This is very important for the development of commercial space transportation,” Zagrai said. “Re-usable spacecraft will have to be recertified between each flight. That’s when information on structural health is important.”
| A diagram of the suborbital launch that will carry the New Mexico Tech experiment into space.
The monitoring system will measure how spacecraft structures react to a variety of elements, including temperature swings, radiation, the launch environment, and other elements.
A team in the Senior Design Clinic flew an earlier version of the monitoring system in April 2011. Tech electrical and mechanical engineering students have been involved in several other launches with Boston University and international partners. Zagrai said space transportation and structural health monitoring technologies require interdisciplinary collaborations to advance the science and engineering.
The "Structural Health Monitoring for Commercial Space Vehicles" payload will fly on a suborbital launch vehicle and a high-altitude balloon – the only of the 24 projects to fly on twice.
The balloon launch will give the Tech experiment several hours of exposure to very-high altitude environment – about 10 kilometers. The sub-orbital launch will reach above 100 kilometers altitude – well into space – but only last about 13 minutes, with only few minutes in space.
The two very different launches will use the same payload and produce different data sets for the Tech students to analyze, Zagrai said.
“This is real!” he said. “Very few nations have such opportunities to allow students to participate in real launch and real payload assembly. I believe we at Tech possess the unique capability to train the best of the best. We are making sure the engineers we produce are top quality – not just in theory, but in hands-on practice.”
“New Mexico Tech is really one of the leaders and our plan is to be among the leaders in commercial space industry,” Zagrai said. “This fits nicely with other activities in New Mexico. We are the ‘Space State’.”
In addition to the Spaceport, all three research universities offer degrees related to aerospace engineering, providing a pipeline of qualified technologists to the industries.
NASA manages the Flight Opportunities Program, matching payloads with flights, and will pay for payload integration and the flight costs for the selected payloads. No NASA funds are provided for the development of these payloads and, hence, the Tech team relies on internal research funds and FAA contribution for payload development. Other suborbital flight vendors on contract to NASA will provide flights after they have successfully flown their qualifying vehicles.
| Dr. Andrei Zagrai (right) works with former team members Abraham Light-Marquez (left) and Will Reiser. That team flew another iteration of structural health monitoring system in the spring of 2011. Light-Marquez is earning his master's this week. Reiser earned his bachelor's in 2011 and is pursuing another bachelor's in civil engineering.
Zagrai said this NASA program is indicative of the move from government-managed launches to commercial space programs. NASA provides funds to the launch provider so that researchers can put payloads in rockets and balloons.
The Flight Opportunities Program, part of NASA's Space Technology Program, is managed at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif. NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. manages the payload activities for the program.
Sixteen of the payloads will ride on parabolic aircraft flights, which provide brief periods of weightlessness. Five will fly on suborbital reusable launch vehicle test flights. Two will ride on high-altitude balloons that fly above 65,000 feet. One payload – the Zagrai and Jorgenson experiment – will fly on both a suborbital launch vehicle and a high-altitude balloon platform. The flights are likely to take place in late 2012.
Flight platforms include Near Space Corp. high altitude balloons and reusable launch vehicles from Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space Systems, UP Aerospace and Virgin Galactic.
Zagrai said NASA has not told him which vehicles will transport Tech’s experiment, nor when the flights will take place.
In a press release, Michael Gazarik, director of NASA's Space Technology Program said, “NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program leverages investment in commercially available vehicles and platforms to enable new technology discoveries. These flights enable researchers to demonstrate the viability of their technologies while taking advantage of American commercial access to near-space.”
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By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech