National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

Former NASA mission leader Michael Watkins will become the next director of the Center for Space Research at the Cockrell School of Engineering.

After working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for 22 years and leading teams for many missions, including the Cassini and Curiosity missions, Watkins will assume leadership at the Center for Space Research in July.

“My experience at NASA gave me a very deep understanding of the how space missions are really developed and implemented, which will help us successfully propose new instruments and missions,” Watkins said in an email.

The center focuses on using space-based data to learn about Earth itself, as well as the interior of other planets,according to Watkins.

“The best place to study the Earth as a planet is from space since satellites can observe the entire Earth essentially all day, including over deep jungles and over the ocean, over Antarctica and those places that would be almost impossible to constantly observe from here on the Earth,” Watkins said. “Satellites really provide our best scientific data.”

Todd Humphreys, assistant professor at the center, said the center’s focus can impact research into topics like climate change.

“A lot of what we understand about Earth and how it’s changing comes from space,” Humphreys said. “It’s much better in some cases to research about space than to scratch the surface of the Earth. By gathering data from space satellites, we have data that is useful in the climate debate because those data are stable and span decades of research.”

Humphreys said he believes Watkins’ experience at NASA will benefit the program overall.

“I think he’s going to bring a lot of good connections and a head for finding the right big problems to solve,” Humphreys said.

Noel Clemens, chair of the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, said Watkins will continue the advancement of the center’s satellite research program and expand into new areas of research.

“We expect Watkins to continue the center’s focus on remote sensing of the Earth from space but also to expand its mission to include planetary missions, increased emphasis on small satellite development and increased collaboration with Earth scientists,” Clemens said in an email.

As the climate continues to change, satellite-based sensing of the Earth will become increasingly important, according to Clemens.

“CSR’s signature satellite program, GRACE, is making important measurements that show the ocean levels are rising, the ice sheets are receding and the magnitude of drought in California,” Clemens said. “When coupled with advanced computer models of the water cycle, the data provided by CSR will help scientists predict how climate change will impact water sources for cities and agriculture.”

Members of the Cockrell School's WIALD student group perform their experiment on NASA's reduced gravity airplane. 

Photo Credit: Courtesy of NASA | Daily Texan Staff

Students in a women’s engineering group at UT became the first people to test how a new material burns in microgravity in early June.

The six students, members of the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Women in Aerospace for Leadership and Development, flew in a reduced gravity NASA aircraft as part of NASA’s Reduced Gravity Flight Education Program. The group, which NASA accepted into the program in December because of its proposal “Properties of Vectran Combustion in Microgravity,” was one of 18 teams to fly in the aircraft.

The group participated to understand how Vectran, a material that is stronger than steel and highly heat-resistant, burns in microgravity. 

“We want[ed] to see if this material is durable and [can] be used on a spacecraft that takes humans to Mars,” aerospace engineering senior Patil Tabanian, who will be the group’s president beginning in August, said in an email. “After flying our experiment in NASA’s microgravity aircraft, we reviewed our results and concluded that Vectran burns similarly in microgravity as it does on Earth’s environment.”

Throughout the year, members proposed, designed and built a structure that contained a piece of Vectran. During the process, the group partnered with various companies and other organizations.

Although the student engineers experienced problems during the flight week in Houston, members said overcoming them has been an insightful part of their time with NASA.

“A lot happened in Houston which most other teams didn't experience, mainly failure,” Nicole Pinto, recent aerospace engineering graduate and the group’s president, said in an email. “We had a serious leak problem with our structure and were told that it wouldn't fly unless it was completely sealed.”

Pinto said the team worked every night to fix the problem and often felt discouraged at the results before the flight.

“There were times when all of us wanted to just give up. After all the hours we had put in, it was heartbreaking that it might not fly,” Pinto said. “But we truly lived the phrase ‘failure is not an option.’”

The team was able to fly for 20 seconds on the last day after fixing the problem, according to Tabanian. The group said they believe this accomplishment is important because it demonstrates the potential and abilities of female engineers, a minority in the engineering field. The 20 members of the group said they hope this project, and future projects, will continue to encourage females to enter and stay in the engineering field.

“This was truly a complete engineering experience – we had to do everything from the budget to a hazard analysis and building the actual project,” aerospace engineering junior Ashleigh Casion said in an email. “We learned a lot about problem solving and working together, and it will be an experience we will all remember for the rest of our lives.”

Members are currently preparing a report for NASA to help reduce fire risk for aircraft going to Mars, and are seeking to analyze the toxic byproducts Vectran produces in microgravity.

UT alumnus Payam Banazadeh spoke to students in STEM-related programs about an opportunity to work with NASA on Monday evening. 

Photo Credit: Jarrid Denman | Daily Texan Staff

Starting this year, NASA will give University students and faculty the opportunity to propose a mission concept that the space administration may actually use.

The Space Mission Design Challenge, presented by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, known as JPL, allows students and faculty to propose space mission concepts for review by a special committee of JPL engineers. The program has been previously offered to Stanford University and the University of Michigan.

One of the committee members, UT alumnus and JPL engineer Payam Banazadeh, said the challenge enhances teamwork between different departments at the University.

“I think the main benefit here is to connect the science students and science department to the engineering department,” Banazadeh said. “We want to show that, to be able to achieve any scientific goal, [there] is collaboration between the two different disciplines.”  

According to the challenge’s rules, the concept must either be science-driven or have a technology demonstration objective. Banazadeh said, depending on the capability of the designs, the committee will select four to five ideas from students and faculty.

In the fall, those selected will have the opportunity to work with aerospace engineering students at the University to develop the concept. The top two teams will travel to Pasadena, Calif., for a two-day design session with JPL engineers and scientists.

Aerospace engineering senior Tyler Bollman said he thinks the program will help students prepare for the industry.

“I think it’s a great way to get into the business, definitely from a student’s perspective, to straight into learning how the business is handled in a mission scenario,” Bollman said.

Aerospace engineering professor Wallace Fowler, who teaches Spacecraft Mission Design with engineers from the JPL providing input on the students’ final projects, said the Space Mission Design Challenge presents a fantastic opportunity for students to excel.

“We haven’t done anything like this at UT, ever,” Fowler said. “I told students in the class, ‘If you want to work for JPL, this is not just an assigned presentation. This is an audition.’”

With the challenge open to all UT students, Banazadeh said he believes sometimes the best ideas come from students outside traditional aerospace engineering circles.

“If you come from the other end of the spectrum, you don’t think about feasibility,” Banazadeh said. “You come up with a crazy idea and then give the engineers the problem and say, ‘Hey, solve this.’ I think that’s a better way to approaching these innovative-type missions.”

UT alumna Karen Nyberg (left) landed in Kazakhstan on Sunday after 166 days in space on Expedition 37.

Photo Credit: NASA

Karen Nyberg, NASA astronaut and UT mechanical engineering alumna, landed back on Earth yesterday with Expedition 37. 

Nyberg was the flight engineer for the expedition, which began as Expedition 36 on May 28. Nyberg, along with fellow crew members Fyodor Yurchikhin and Luca Parmitano, separated from the rest of their crew on Expedition 36 and departed from the International Space Station on Sept. 10 to begin Expedition 37. The capsule containing the remaining portion of the crew from Expedition 36 landed in Kazakhstan on Nov. 5. 

Although a journey in space may seem to be a fairly difficult concept to grasp for most of the general population, many believe that Nyberg has brought the journey to Earth with her unusually frequent social media usage while in space. Nyberg tweeted about her experiences while on the expedition, consistently sharing pictures illustrating her journey, which caused her to gain a significantly large social media following.

Trey Curran, Plan II and aerospace engineering freshman, said he was particularly interested by Nyberg’s success as an astronaut. 

“As an [undergraduate] in aerospace engineering, Nyberg’s story serves an inspiration,” Curran said. “She shows, through hard work and determination, that any person can reach the top of their profession, whether it be in aerospace or any other field.”

UT scientists are designing a mission to Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, to test theories that the moon’s large supply of liquid water might contain life.

Scientists Don Blankenship, Britney Schmidt and Krista Soderlund have developed a blueprint for a prospective NASA lander mission to Europa. Lander missions involve sending unmanned spacecrafts to the surface of a planet in order to collect geologic data as well as other information. The concept was developed to investigate the moon’s potential to support life.

Soderlund, a postdoctoral fellow at the University’s Institute for Geophysics, said the mission was designed so scientists can examine Europa’s potential for sustaining life.

“The primary science objectives and investigations are to understand the habitability of Europa’s ocean through composition and chemistry,” Soderlund said.

The highest priority of the lander mission concept is to answer questions about the chemical makeup of the ice surrounding Jupiter’s global ocean, Soderlund said. NASA’s Galileo mission, which explored the moons of Jupiter in the ‘90s, collected strong evidence indicating the possibility of a deep water ocean beneath the moon’s surface.

Blankenship, a senior research scientist at the institute, said the lander mission will focus on gathering specifics about the ice.

“[The objective is] to characterize the local thickness, heterogeneity and dynamics of any ice and water layers,” Blankenship said.

To characterize the dynamics of the ice and water layers, the scientists must create the lander mission to measure the seismicity and induced magnetic fields and to characterize the surface geology by obtaining high resolution images, Soderlund said. 

The trio has been at the forefront of developing the project to explore Europa. Schmidt, a former postdoctoral fellow at the institute and current assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said landing on Jupiter’s moon would provide valuable information that is impossible to gather from a distance.

“[The mission] would create science opportunities that could not be achieved through flyby or orbital remote sensing, with direct relevance to Europa’s potential habitability,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said the trio discussed the suggested science objectives and investigations for a Europa lander mission, along with a model planning payload of instruments that could address specific objectives. In discussions, the trio summarized the science of a Europa lander concept, as developed by the NASA-commissioned Science Definition Team.

Currently, the three scientists working to plan specifics for the mission to ensure the spacecraft will be prepared to gather evidence upon landing.

NASA's Orion vehicle is designed for long duration, interplanetary missions (Graphic courtesy of NASA).

UT students gathered in the aerospace engineering building Wednesday night as Larry Price, Lockheed Martin’s Deputy Orion Program Manager, provided an inside view of the next generation of space flight.

Lockheed Martin is NASA’s primary contractor for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, the next national option for getting humans to space. Currently, astronauts travel to the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz capsules, an alternative used since the ending of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011.

As the name denotes, Orion is designed for long duration missions to a variety of destinations like the moon, Lagrangian Points, near earth objects like asteroids and one day, with more robust life support systems and increased propulsion capabilities, to Mars.

Instead of the wings and wheels used to land the space shuttle, Orion is equipped with a three parachute system to slow the capsule down for a water landing. Space gets more expensive and dangerous by the pound. The weight saved by eliminating extra bulk allows more room for experiments or scientific payload.

Orion is also designed to be ten times safer than the space shuttle. Price points out not to take this number at face value though because the way safety and reliability are calculated has changed since the shuttle era. There are different measurement tools, different risks involved, more advanced escape systems and the thermal protection, one of the shuttle’s fatal flaws, is more streamlined.

“The goal is for Orion to be made as safe as practically possible. It is significantly safer,” Price said.

Orion may be NASA’s next big thing, but the shape is a familiar one. Twelve missions worth of full-scale aerodynamic data gathered from the Apollo program went into creating a capsule of the same shape but one third larger. The larger size will accommodate four crew members instead of Apollo’s three, a modification for long duration missions.

Price emphasizes that the shape is the only thing that is the same though.

“We are not Apollo. People think that it’s your grandfather’s Apollo,” Price said.  

A lot has changed not only in spaceflight but in the world in the 43 years since man landed on the moon. During Apollo, NASA got to the moon using technology more primitive than today’s cell phones. With the goal of operating for 30 years, Orion hopes to adapt to evolving technologies with it’s ‘plug and play’ avionics design. Old components can be swapped out or updated without reconfiguring the whole system.

Constantly changing technology is not the only hurdle Orion has to overcome. To Price, what continues to be one of the most impressive achievements is the political perseverance. Though specific program goals have changed over the years, between the Orion and it’s launch system, the program has received a stable budget of about $3 billion since the cancellation of the program was first proposed and continues to undergo significant flight tests.

“Congress has been phenomenal stabilizing this program,” said Price.

The idea of space exploration is so agreeable, it transcends being bipartisan and is actually considered nonpartisan, Price explains. In Congress, the main disagreements center not on if we should go to space, but where we should go in space.

Orion’s flexibility helps it adapt to changing leadership for years to come, according to Kimberly Robinson, Strategic Communications Manager for NASA’s Space Launch System, the system that will launch Orion.

“The important thing is we’re designing the SLS [Space Launch System] and the Orion to go to many destinations. The Apollo vehicle could only go to the moon. The space shuttle could only stay in low earth orbit. We are concentrating on the vehicle that will take us to all of those places,” Robinson said.

The space industry needs students that are knowledgeable in a variety of disciplines including engineering, business and communications, Price said.

"I think you'll find when you get into your careers that you don't just get to work on the analytical aspect of it. You've got to work on how you are providing for your customer a viable product," Price said.

While you are in school, "you actually have to pay attention in English class, in economics, and you have to communicate," Robinson said.

Mark Esslinger of the Austin Amateur Radio Club assists students with a solar powered telescope during NASA Day on Tuesday afternoon at the Capitol. 

Photo Credit: Becca Gamache | Daily Texan Staff

NASA hosted Space Day at the Capitol on Tuesday to publicize the future of continued space exploration and educate students and children. 

The event included robotics demonstrations, space vehicles and hands-on activities including straw rockets and hover crafts. Space Day featured an interactive exhibit called Driven to Explore, which allowed visitors to touch a piece of the moon and explore current space endeavors. 

“We want to show the public that just because we aren’t going anywhere in space, we still have a lot going on,” said Ashle Robinson, a spokeswoman for Johnson Space Center. “This is a time to salute and celebrate space exploration.”

Robinson said the purpose of the event, which included a nationally traveling exhibit, was to expose people to Texas Aerospace Scholars. The program has representatives from community colleges, high schools and middle schools. To participate in the program, students are nominated by a state legislator then scholars spend time at the Johnson Space Center working with science and technology.

“It’s important to engage kids in NASA and get them excited,” said Katelyn Wamsted, program director of Girlstart. “Getting kids to play and think outside the box will help in motivating them to explore fields in [science, technology, engineering and math].”

Girlstart, Girls Inc. and Girl Scouts raised awareness for the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering during Space Day. 

Mechanical engineering senior Kaitlynn Hall said events that encourage students to pursue science and engineering majors are beneficial regardless of gender, however girls have become the target audience to reach because of their low representation.

“In grades four, five and six girls begin to lose interest in [science, technology, engineering and math] fields,” Hall said. “Girls need to get excited and know that they can do it.”

Although events such as the one held at the Capitol are key in helping students become encouraged in areas of science, Hall said the public needs to always encourage science and engineering. If others think engineers are nerds, then children may be turned off from pursing a career such as engineering, Hall said.

“The public needs to stop conforming to typical stereotypes — such as engineers are nerds,” Hall said. “They need to focus on capability and the innovative things that come out of engineering.”

Published on March 20, 2013 as "NASA educates at Capitol". 

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA is teaming up with the European Space Agency to get astronauts beyond Earth’s orbit.

Europe will provide the propulsion and power compartment for NASA’s new Orion crew capsule, officials said Wednesday. This so-called service module will be based on Europe’s supply ship used for the International Space Station.

Orion’s first trip is an unmanned mission in 2017. Any extra European parts will be incorporated in the first manned mission of Orion in 2021.

NASA’s human exploration chief, Bill Gerstenmaier, said both missions will be aimed at the vicinity of the moon. The exact details are being worked out; lunar fly-bys, rather than landings, are planned.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Just in time for Christmas, scientists have confirmed a vast amount of ice at the north pole — on Mercury, the closest planet to the sun.

The findings are from NASA’s Mercury-orbiting probe, Messenger, and the subject of three scientific papers released Thursday by the journal Science.

The frozen water is located in regions of Mercury’s north pole that always are in shadows, essentially impact craters. It’s believed the south pole harbors ice as well, though there are no hard data to support it. Messenger orbits much closer to the north pole than the south.

The ice is thought to be at least 1½ feet deep — and possibly as much as 65 feet deep.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will fund UT research projects after the University signed an agreement with the space program Tuesday.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory added UT to its Strategic University Research Partnership program Tuesday. The program, which includes 11 other institutions of higher education, partners NASA with universities so student researchers and faculty can propose collaborative research and educational projects with Jet Propulsion Laboratory researchers. Under the agreement, UT student and faculty projects are eligible for Jet Propulsion Laboratory federal funding.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is a research institute based in California that handles active space exploration projects like the Mars Exploration Rovers. In August, the Mars Curiosity Rover, a project Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked on, landed on the red planet.

Undergraduates, graduates and UT faculty from specific programs will be able to propose research projects to the Strategic University Research Partnership program, Byron Tapley, director of UT’s Center for Space Research, said. Tapley said this is an exciting opportunity for undergraduates.

“It is a major benefit to be able to interact with Jet Propulsion Laboratory,” Tapley said. “It is stimulating. The fact that it is being done and the fact that they can be involved in what is happening really benefits undergraduate students.”

Tapley said it was an exciting moment for him.

“This is a very big day and a very important day,” Tapley said. “I think it is something we really needed here. I am happy to see this day come to pass.”

Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said before the formal agreement signed Tuesday NASA had more than 50 years of work with UT.

UT and Jet Propulsion Laboratory collaborated on the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellite program, which launched two satellites in 2002. The satellites are currently taking measurements of the Earth’s gravitational field. Tapley is one of the professors who worked on and continues to work on the project.

“We have had a long-term relationship with individual faculty at UT,” Elachi said. “What we wanted to do was build a stronger and longer relationship.”

Elachi said outside of California, UT is one of the largest sources of Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s employees. Almost 150 of Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s employees are UT alumni, Elachi said.

For example, UT alumni Richard Cook is the project manager of Mars Rover Curiosity. According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA employs about 5,000 employees at its research site in California.

“This program can be a source of both more research collaboration and future UT students becoming employees at Jet Propulsion Laboratory,” Elachi said.

In a statement Tuesday, Juan Sanchez, UT’s vice president for research, said this partnership will enhance UT’s educational experience.

“Our partnership will enrich the educational experience of undergraduate and graduate students in science and engineering, as well as offer faculty members opportunities to collaborate on JPL’s far-reaching projects of exploration,” Sanchez said in his statement.

Printed on Wednesday, October 17, 2012 as: NASA teams with UT to fuel program