Despite its recent retirement of the space shuttle program, NASA is continuing to further space exploration in today’s day and age, and UCF is getting taken along for the ride.
Last month, three UCF projects involving experiments observing the surfaces of asteroids and other objects in space were selected by NASA as part of their Flight Opportunities Program, a unique chance for scientists and engineers to create an experiment that will be flown on commercial suborbital vehicles.
With a team made up of undergraduate students, graduate students, alumni and hired staff from UCF, the 12 engineers, three physicists, assistant research scientist and manager of engineering staff were led by Principal Investigator Dr. Joshua Colwell, who said that the projects they have developed are meant to serve NASA in the long run.
“The applications are to help NASA better understand how to operate on the surface of objects, like asteroids, that have low gravity. If you went to visit a small near-Earth asteroid and you dropped something, it would take it about a minute or even longer for it to fall, so there’s very weak gravity,” said Colwell, who is also the interim assistant director of the Florida Space Institute and an associate professor and associate chair in UCF’s Department of Physics. “These experiments are designed to help us understand how the surfaces of those objects behave and respond to the kinds of disturbances that would accompany both manned and un-manned exploration, so that we can better prepare equipment and procedures to operate on and near those surfaces.”
The projects, which were submitted to NASA back in December, all deal with the collection or distribution of regolith, the dust found on surface of moons and other objects in space. Each project serves a different purpose and is applied a different way, with one to be flown on a manned parabolic airplane and two to be flown on unmanned suborbital rockets.
The parabolic airplane project, Physics of Regolith Impacts in Microgravity Experiment, shoots a projectile that’s about two centimeter across into a tray of simulated lunar dust at a very low speed. Though the projectile is shot at a slow speed, the lack of gravity will make the dust spread very easily, which is exactly what the researchers are looking to study.
Todd Bradley, the assistant research scientist of the team, gave an example of how data obtained from PRIME could prove very useful.
“The PRIME experiments study ejecta of simulated lunar regolith and such, so suppose, in the future, NASA sends astronauts back to the moon and so as they walk around and they kick up and stir up dust,” Bradley said. “Well that dust floating around in microgravity conditions could get into equipment, it could become a problem unless NASA takes measures to circumvent these issues and that’s part of what can come out of this, a way to understand dust properties in low gravity conditions and how to design equipment to deal with potential dust hazards.”
Micro-Bang, a project that is conceptually similar to PRIME, will also shoot a projectile into a tray of simulated lunar dust in order to produce data concerning the distribution of the dust in low gravity. However, this project will be flown on a suborbital rocket, which will allow for a much longer period of weightlessness to accumulate findings.
Finally, a suborbital rocket will also carry a third project, Collection of Regolith Experiment. With this project, a sampler that collects material off the surface of an asteroid or moon will be tested in zero gravity.
“It’s like an automatic ice cream scooper,” Colwell said. “Again, we have a tray of powder material and then we have a mechanism that punches into that surface and grabs a sample of it and brings it back up and holds that sample contained. It’s more of an engineering development project rather than pure science project, and so it’s testing to see whether or not this particular idea for a sampler works in free fall.”
With all of the hard work the team at UCF’s Department of Physics has put into developing these projects, Colwell said he was pleased to receive the selection from NASA.
“I’m thrilled; I couldn’t be happier or more proud of my team and the work that they did,” Colwell said. “To have all of the work that they’ve put into this validated by this selection, then have the opportunity for them to see the experiments that they worked on fly in space is just exactly what we’ve been trying to do.”
Micro-Bang and CORE are completely finished and ready for action, while PRIME is currently in the final stages of electrical testing. Colwell said the projects will be flown by NASA hopefully sometime around the end of 2012.
“I think it’s important for people to know as well that NASA retired the space shuttles, but that doesn’t mean that NASA retired exploring space. It’s good that they’re involved in supporting these opportunities for us to continue to explore those environments,” said Amanda Stevenson, the manager of engineering staff. “It’s not stopping. … We’ll never stop exploring space.”