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Undergraduate Engineers Launch Real-World Nasa Project

March 9, 2001-- To hear aerospace engineering professor Gabriel Laufer spea k of the University of Virginia's Infrared Sensing Experiment, you’d 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.

"This 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."

Students in Laufer’s 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.

Their 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.

"The 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."

If 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 atmospheric processes.

The 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 Commonwealth’s booming aerospace industry.

"Students 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.

"We 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."

The 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 year’s flight on the X-34 rocket.

"We’ve 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 about instrumentation.

"We’ve 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."

Armstrong 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."

"It’s 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. There 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."

UVIRSE 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.

Thirty-four 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.

Laufer 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 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."

The 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.

"Our 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."

The students agree it’s all plenty exciting. But nobody, it seems, is more excited about lift off than Laufer, their teacher.

"When 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?’

Contact: Fariss Samarrai, (804) 924-3778

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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