Engineers Launch Real-World Nasa Project
9, 2001-- To hear aerospace engineering professor
Gabriel Laufer spea k of the University of Virginia's Infrared Sensing
Experiment, youd think he'd discovered a terrific new toy.
Actually, he has a NASA Orion rocket soon will 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 every day that undergrads get to design
instruments for an experiment that will be launched to the edge
of space by NASA."
in Laufers undergraduate Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
Design class at U.Va. will watch a 16-foot rocket carry their 214-pound
payload to the very edge of the Earth's atmosphere during a morning
launch in April (tentative date is April 9) from the NASA Wallops
Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
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 period.
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, global climate change and short-term
purpose of U.Va.s Infrared Sensing Experiment (UVIRSE) is
education and research. It eventually should provide a source of
highly skilled young engineers for the Commonwealths 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
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 years
flight on the X-34 rocket.
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 its
inception and spent last summer at Wallops learning all she could
made mistakes, learned, tested and retested everything, and we believe
were ready," she says. "We also know that what happens
on the ground may be different from what happens under actual flight
conditions. Were confident weve done a good job, and
soon well 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, Im getting not only the details, but
also the big view, and its awesome. Im learning to work
with people at all levels, managers, technicians, all types of engineers,
and Im learning the role of the aerospace engineer in the
been a roller coaster ride from the start," says Jeff Dawson,
a fourth-year aerospace engineering major and the projects
team leader. "Its been fast and thrilling, with high
moments and low. There have been times when we didnt think
we could do it, and times when we were overconfident. Now were
ready to put our project to the test, in flight. This is an invaluable
experience for future engineers."
is an ongoing project supported during 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 Corporation.
students at U.Va. and JMU 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.
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 money
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 coalition 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. "Theres 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 its 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?
Fariss Samarrai, (804) 924-3778