engineers launch real-world NASA project
Engineering students, working with professor Gabriel Laufer,
have designed a payload that soon will be launched on a NASA
rocket. Some of the student team members gathered around the
work-in-progress are: (standing, L-R) undergraduates Brian
Powell, Hou-Kuang (Thomas) Yang, Sarah Armstrong, Jeff Dawson
(team leader), Meredith Bell, graduate student Keith Holland,
and undergraduate Tim Smith. Seated are (L-R) undergraduate
William Kent and Laufer.
hear aerospace engineering professor Gabriel Laufer talk about
U.Va.'s Infrared Sensing Experiment, you'd think he has discovered
a terrific new toy.
he has a NASA Orion rocket will soon launch his undergraduate-designed
experiment, a payload of sensors to provide temperature measurements
of the land and ocean.
is a most exciting opportunity for both me and my students,"
Laufer says. "It is not everyday that undergrads get to design
instruments for an experiment that will be launched to the edge
of space by NASA."
in Laufer's undergraduate Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
Design class will watch a 16-foot rocket carry their 214-pound
payload to the very edge of the atmosphere during a morning launch
in April from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern
payload is a cylindrical package of instruments comprising an
infrared sensing detector, a video camera, a VCR, three light
detectors, temperature and pressure monitors, an on-board data
logger, a multiplexer with a data transmitter, a beacon and batteries.
The whole payload, which includes the instruments, nose cone,
antenna, aluminum skin, parachute, and pyrotechnics for separation
of a heat shield and the rocket, was designed and assembled by
students at U.Va. and James Madison University during a three-year
infrared sensing project will gather information about atmospheric
changes and the sources of changing conditions that should
help scientists understand ozone depletion.
flight will last only 20 minutes but it will accomplish a great
deal," Laufer says. "It will, if successful, prove to
the students that they are capable of handling a major engineering
problem with a terrific out-of-this-world application. It also
will demonstrate the capabilities of the new infrared sensing
package for future atmospheric research projects."
the students' project is as good as they believe, their sensors
will become key components of a stratospheric methane sensor to
be flown on an Orbital Sciences Corporation hypersonic X-34 rocket.
Infrared and methane sensors work together to provide important
information about earth and atmospheric changes and the sources
of changing conditions. This information is critical to understanding
stratospheric ozone depletion, as well as global climate change
and short-term atmospheric processes.
purpose of U.Va.'s Infrared Sensing Experiment (UVIRSE) is
education and research, and eventually to provide a source of
highly skilled young engineers for the Commonwealth's booming
are our most worthwhile investment," says Jan Jackson, on-site
representative at Wallops Flight Facility for Litton PRC, an engineering
corporation with NASA contracts. Litton PRC has provided more
than $100,000 for UVIRSE in direct support, student salaries,
equipment, parts, time and advice.
want to ensure that undergraduate students consider engineering
as a viable career field, and we want those students to have an
outstanding hands-on, progressively more challenging experience
throughout their undergraduate education," Jackson says.
"Students in this program learn from the ground up, from
the costs of making components to understanding a rocket's
performance in a sub-orbital field. The experiment brings engineering
to life for these students. It's much more interesting to
launch a rocket than to stare at a textbook."
I was a kid, I had model airplanes to feed my imagination.
Now, my students have their own rocket. I helped them get
it. What can be more exciting than that?"
Aerospace engineering professor
Orion rocket will take the students' payload up about 31 miles,
or 50 kilometers, in less than two minutes before separating from
the rocket engine. The student-designed sensors in the cone will
then begin making temperature measurements of land and water during
a nearly four-minute free fall through the atmosphere before parachuting
into the ocean. A ship will recover the payload. The students
will then bring their project back to U.Va. and begin analyzing
their data and preparing and refining their instruments for next
been working so hard for so long preparing for the launch date,"
says Sarah Armstrong, a third-year aerospace engineering major
and UVIRSE team member. Armstrong has been with the project from
the beginning and spent all of last summer at Wallops learning
all she could about instrumentation.
made mistakes, learned, tested and retested everything and we
believe we're ready," she says. "We also know that
what happens on the ground may be different from what happens
under actual flight conditions. We're confident we've
done a good job, and soon we'll know."
says she is learning a lot more about being an engineer than just
thinking like one
she is actually working as an engineer, while still an undergraduate.
"By working on this project at U.Va. and at Wallops, I'm
getting not only the details, but also the big view, and it's
awesome. I'm learning to work with people at all levels, managers,
technicians, all types of engineers, and I'm learning the role
of the aerospace engineer in the process."
been a roller coaster ride from the start," says Jeff Dawson,
a fourth-year aerospace engineering major and the project's
team leader. "It's been fast and thrilling, with high
moments and low.
have been times when we didn't think we could do it, and
times when we were overconfident. Now we're ready to put
our project to the test, in flight. This is an invaluable experience
for future engineers."
is an ongoing project supported in the last three years by nearly
$600,000 from Litton PRC, the Virginia Space Grant Consortium,
NASA Wallops Flight Facility, NASA Langley, and Orbital Sciences
students have been involved with various aspects of the project,
18 currently. The majority are aerospace majors, though mechanical,
electrical and computer science engineering majors are also involved.
spent years pursuing funding while convincing sponsors that undergraduates
could engineer a payload that would be viable in space.
"I had to bang on a lot of doors to find funding for this
project," he says. "But I knew we could succeed at both
getting funding and proving that undergrads can handle research
and complex engineering problems. Our sponsors, and hopefully
additional future sponsors, understand that this is a great opportunity
to prepare future engineers for outstanding careers in government,
academia and industry."
Virginia Space Grant Consortium agrees. "This is exactly
the kind of real-world engineering and research project that we
look for to help fund," says Mary Sandy, director of the
consortium, a NASA-sponsored coalition of Virginia Space Grant
universities, government agencies and other institutions with
interests in aerospace education and research. The consortium
is in its third year of support for UVIRSE, having provided $69,000
so far for direct support of the project, internships and fellowships.
goal is to get more undergraduates involved in research, in real
space missions," Sandy says. "There's nothing more
exciting to an educator than to see a student experience the thrill
of discovery. This project is an adventure for the students and
for those of us who get to sponsor them."
students agree, it's all plenty exciting. But nobody, it
seems, is more excited about lift off than Laufer, their teacher.
I was a kid, I had model airplanes to feed my imagination,"
he says. "Now, my students have their own rocket. I helped
them get it. What can be more exciting than that?'