By R. Danner Friend, P.E., Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering
Since 2007, students in the David Crawford School of Engineering have been actively involved in NASA-related design and research activities. Funding for these projects, which averages $10,000 to $15,000 per year, is provided by NASA via the Vermont Space Grant Consortium and NASA EPSCoR. The grant programs are used to promote interest in careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines and create links to NASA by supporting mentored undergraduate research projects.
Funds are primarily used to provide stipends to participating students and faculty mentors and to a lesser extent to buy supplies and materials.
Mentored undergraduate research projects occur during a six to ten week period in the summer. Additional research and design projects occur during the academic year as part of the capstone design course for senior engineering students. The specific projects that students work on vary from year to year but are expected to align with NASA research priorities or technical needs.
Some examples of the types of projects that students have worked on include an autonomous underwater vehicle, the Vermont CubeSat Lunar Lander, an investigation of critical aerothermodynamic phenomena for hypersonic vehicles, and additive manufacturing in space.
Some of the research focus areas have included autonomous navigation, celestial navigation, attitude and position determination sensors (cameras, star trackers, sun sensors), image processing, aerothermodynamic gas-solid interactions, high temperature materials, pressure and heat flux sensors, and control and monitoring systems.
Since 2007, 55 students and 6 faculty members from both mechanical engineering and electrical and computer engineering have participated in NASA-sponsored projects. Students frequently present the results of their work at professional meetings and conferences that have included the VT Space Grant Awards Ceremony, the National Conference for Undergraduate Research, the ASEE Northeast Section Conference, the Vermont Society of Engineers Annual Meeting, and the ASME International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition.
Several of the projects have involved collaborations between students and faculty at Norwich and other Vermont colleges.
The CubeSat project, for example, began with a 2009 Consortium Development Competition Award of $195,000 from NASA to the Vermont Space Grant Consortium to develop a CubeSat (a four-inch cubic satellite) payload package capable of autonomously navigating to the moon. This project was a collaborative effort between students and faculty at the University of Vermont, Vermont Technical College, Norwich University, and St. Michael’s College.
The ultimate goal of the Vermont Lunar Project was to produce a spacecraft composed of three CubeSat satellites that could navigate autonomously to the moon using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology and minimal ground control. The spacecraft would be designed to travel to the moon using a low energy orbit. While it would take approximately two years to reach the moon in such an orbit, the craft’s fuel requirements would be reduced to a manageable size.
The ultimate goal for the Norwich team was to design an attitude and position determination system based on information extracted from the Earth, moon, and stars using a system of cameras. The autonomous navigation system is required when GPS signals are no longer available as the CubeSat leaves low earth orbit. Since many traditional near-Earth attitude and position determination solutions are not suitable around the moon, new techniques based on optical images were evaluated.
In fall 2010, the Vermont CubeSat Lunar Lander Project was awarded a launch opportunity from NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) Launch Services Program to test a single CubeSat satellite in a low Earth orbit in preparation for the lunar mission. A total of 28 CubeSats were launched aboard a Minotaur I rocket from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on November 19, 2013, as part of the ORS-3 mission. Eleven of the CubeSats where built by students from high schools and universities across the country. The Vermont CubeSat was the first satellite in space built by university students in the New England region. For the 2013 launch, the Norwich team developed a custom-made camera board capable of taking and transferring images from the camera to the CubeSat’s onboard computer. During a two-year period between November 2013 and November 2015, the CubeSat orbited Earth and the camera system took many pictures that were downloaded to Earth.