NASA grant helps NMSU astronomy student’s search for microbial life

NMSU student Kyle Uckert and Nancy Chanover, astronomy professor, do field work as part of their research. Uckert is using special instrumentation to study biosignatures within geological samples. (Submitted photo)
NMSU student Kyle Uckert and Nancy Chanover, astronomy professor, do field work as part of their research. Uckert is using special instrumentation to study biosignatures within geological samples. (Submitted photo)

Date: 2013-10-28
Writer: Isabel A. Rodriguez, (575) 646-7066, [email protected]

New Mexico State University student Kyle Uckert is working on the development of instrumentation to help identify signs of life on bodies of the solar system. He has been selected as one of 65 graduate students in the 2013 class of NASA Space Technology Research Fellows and will receive funding for his work for three years.

Uckert, who is a graduate student in the College of Arts and Science’s Astronomy Department, is developing a two-step laser time-of-flight mass spectrometer to isolate materials within rocks, and identify and characterize biosignatures within geological samples.

“I will identify the spectral characteristics of amino acids and other chains of basic organic compounds essential to life on Earth,” he said. “The mass spectrometer uses a laser to ablate materials off of rocks. The plasma-like material is then accelerated into a detector, which helps measure chemical constituents of samples. We’re able to infer from this whether there’s any organic matter and identify any signs of present or past life on the rock.”

As part of his research, Uckert is studying the materials found in cave rocks. He said he hopes the instrumentation he is developing will one day be used on landed or roving space missions.

“We’re starting to study life in caves on Earth,” he explained. “Caves are a good analog for extreme environments where we might hope to find life elsewhere in the solar system. They’re sheltered from ultraviolet light. There’s also the potential for water to be below the surface of other planetary bodies.

“The instrument will hopefully be flown to another planetary body to help us look for life there. My role is to help identify what the best way to look for life here on Earth is, so that we can apply that knowledge elsewhere in the solar system. I’ll be doing that for the next three years.”

Uckert uses three types of devices to study and analyze the materials: a two-step laser desorption time-of-flight mass spectrometer for organic and biosignature identification; infrared and ultraviolet reflectance spectrometers, complimentary instrumentation at NMSU’s geology and electrical engineering departments; and “a laser-induced breakdown spectrometer to quantify the effectiveness of these instruments as biomarker identification tools.”

Through the fellowship, Uckert will also have the opportunity to work with a mentor at a NASA institution, Stephanie Getty. He will spend time at the Goddard Space Flight Center utilizing the equipment.

Uckert, who anticipates graduating in 2016, earned his bachelor’s degree at Ohio University. He chose NMSU for his graduate studies because his now-adviser Nancy Chanover was working on the project, and he wanted to be involved. He also works with Nancy McMillan of geological sciences and David Voelz of electrical engineering.

“The most fascinating thing about this research is that the technology that we’re developing has potential to impact future missions to other planets,” he said. “The most challenging thing is trying to decide what constitutes something that has life in it, or trying to find the life. We look for life in solar system based on what we think life should look like. We really only have one data point for that. We don’t know for sure whether life in other bodies will have the same properties, but it’s the best place we have to start.”

Uckert is the first NMSU student to receive this NASA fellowship. The grant amounts to roughly $180,000, and includes a student stipend, a travel allowance, tuition costs, a faculty advisor allowance and support for him to spend 10 weeks each summer working at a NASA center with a research mentor.

Still not sure what his plans after graduation are, Uckert said he hopes to continue working on this type of development.

“Ideally, it would be great to have a career in instrumentation development and planetary science,” he said.

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Engineering research at NMSU may help enable extended space missions

Krishna Kota, New Mexico State University assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is conducting research that may lead to longer duration of space missions - a high priority of NASA. It may also lead to energy efficiencies in many other applications, ultimately reducing consumption of fossil fuels and the carbon footprint. (Courtesy image)
Krishna Kota, New Mexico State University assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is conducting research that may lead to longer duration of space missions – a high priority of NASA. It may also lead to energy efficiencies in many other applications, ultimately reducing consumption of fossil fuels and the carbon footprint. (Courtesy image)

Date: 2013-08-28
Writer: Linda Fresques, 575-646-7416, [email protected]

Krishna Kota, New Mexico State University assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is conducting research that may lead to longer duration of space missions – a high priority of NASA. It may also lead to energy efficiencies in many other applications, ultimately reducing consumption of fossil fuels and the carbon footprint.

“The problem we are addressing is how to extend NASA space missions. Right now most space missions are limited to a few weeks. The goal is to enable prolonged space missions to a few months as opposed to a few weeks,” said Kota, who directs the Surface-Fluid Interaction Research Laboratory. His research is funded by NASA through the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium.

This project focuses on one of the critical issues in realizing long duration space missions: the gradual loss of cryogenic propellants due to their boil-off as a result of radiation exposure in space.
Cryogenic propellants, for example, liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, require extremely low temperatures to remain in a liquid state. Oxygen needs to be stored at below -183 degrees centigrade; hydrogen at below -255 degrees centigrade, the temperatures at which they vaporize.

The propellants are stored in on-board insulated tanks and the problem lies in the weight of these propellant containment systems. Because liquid occupies less space than gas, the systems required for handling liquid forms of propellants are much smaller in comparison to those needed when they are in a gaseous phase, thus reducing the weight they add to the spacecraft. However, when the liquid propellants vaporize, they increase the pressure of the storage tanks and will require thicker tank material that adds to the weight. Hence, relief valves are usually attached to the tanks to release gaseous propellant to maintain the design pressure but it results in gradual loss of the propellant.

“It’s very advantageous for the propellants to be in a liquid form and prevent their boil-off,” explained Kota. Cryocoolers are employed to keep them at very low “cryotemperatures” in liquid form. “One of the primary components of the cryocoolers is the heat exchanger, which plays a very crucial role in determining how well the cryocooler can perform to keep the contents of the storage tanks cool. The size of the heat exchanger is the biggest problem. The heat exchanger could be sometimes tens of times larger than the cryocooler itself.”
A heat exchanger with high effectiveness is extremely important for achieving high performance numbers for cryocoolers. Current state-of-the-art heat exchangers are either compact and suffer from low effectiveness or have a high effectiveness but are large-sized and bulky.

Development of compact and portable mesoscale cryocoolers is crucial to enable extended storage of cryogenic propellants for orbital missions and has been deemed a high-priority future technology area by NASA.

“We’re doing some really exciting research to increase the performance of the heat exchanger without increasing the size, actually maybe even lowering the size of the heat exchanger,” Kota said.
Kota is examining two fundamental interactions: the flow and the thermal interaction of the liquid propellants with the surface of the tubing through which they flow in the heat exchanger.

To improve performance, Kota and his team are tailoring engineered surfaces, such as dimpled surfaces, like that on a golf ball only much smaller, and innovatively textured wavy surfaces, that will optimize the flow.

“This is the first time that anyone has looked at such wavy channels for this purpose,” Kota said.

“We have multiple ways to modify the surface topology,” Kota said. “One way is through conventional machining, like milling or drilling.”

Anthony Hyde of the College of Engineering’s Manufacturing Technology and Engineering Center is working with Kota to develop cost-efficient manufacturing methods to produce these textured surfaces.
The other method is to use chemical modification of surfaces.

“On the microscale we can modify the surfaces using chemicals or micro-fabrication techniques performed in a clean room, and can fundamentally alter the way these surfaces interact with different fluids,” Kota said.

For example, chemical treatments produce thousands of nanostructures on the surface of copper, in this case, making the surface that is water-phobic or hydrophobic: water slides on the surface. The surface structure is inspired by the lotus leaf, a naturally occurring hydrophobic surface.

“This reduces the drag of the fluid or the friction of the fluid as it flows through the pipes. When the drag goes down it saves a lot in the pumping power, which means less electricity consumption,” Kota said.
“It is significant that we are applying this technology to the surface of copper, which is good for heat transfer. We could do this on Teflon or some polymer surfaces that are naturally water repellant, but these materials are not good for heat transfer. The challenge is realizing these surfaces with adequate robustness on materials that have good heat transfer properties. Copper is one of the best thermal conductors.”

Based on preliminary analysis, Kota’s research has found that, under certain operating conditions, cryogenic heat exchangers being pursued could be at least one-third of the size of the current state-of-the-art, with more than 10-15 percent improvement in thermal performance.

Kota and Hyde are working with students at NMSU to optimize flow and heat transfer of cryogenic fluids through the proposed textured channels in addition to identifying a cost-effective manufacturing solution. Along with Brian Motil, chief of the Fluid Physics and Transport Branch of NASA GRC, they are pursuing a goal of integrating their findings into actual cryocooler systems.
“This is really, really exciting, because we have fluid flowing through pipes in innumerable applications – from drug delivery in medicine, thermal management of defense and automotive electronics, to cooling supercomputing data centers in which we have thousands of computing servers generating large amounts of heat, and we have power generation systems involving heat exchangers and a lot of piping and tubing for transfer of fluids,” Kota said.

“The driving force is energy. Basically what we’re trying to do is improve energy efficiency by lowering the electrical costs of pumping and improving thermal transfer using engineered surfaces and bio-inspired designs. If we can improve energy efficiency from the thermal-fluid perspective, we can actually see a lot of reduction of the carbon footprint as a result of power generation by burning of fossil fuels. It could also make renewable power generation economical.”

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.

NMSU astronomer leads international collaborative exploring galactic evolution

he Hubble Space Telescope looks at a background quasar and probes the gas around an intervening galaxy.
The Hubble Space Telescope looks at a background quasar and probes the gas around an intervening galaxy. Hubble observes the spectrum and detects the gas as absorption lines. (Image credit: NASA/STScI/Ann Feild)

Date: 2013-08-23
Writer: Tonya Suther, 575-646-6233, [email protected]

The flow of gas in outer space may hold the key to understanding how galaxies form and evolve, and why the Milky Way looks the way it does today. Astronomers at New Mexico State University will take the helm of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in October for an international study into the evolution of galaxies.
“We will be using the observational data and comparing them to high powered cosmological simulations in which galaxies are modeled with very high resolution,” said Chris Churchill, associate professor of astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator for the project. “Our goals are to measure the detailed properties of the gas surrounding 50 different galaxies in order to determine how the gas flows around galaxies.”

Churchill’s group was recently awarded 110 90-minute observational orbits on Hubble from NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute for the study that will include $350,000 in research funding. The project, “A Breakaway from Incremental Science: Full Characterization of the Circumgalactic Medium and Testing Galaxy Evolution Theory,” is in collaboration with scientists in Australia, India, Spain and the Netherlands.

“We will use the instrument on Hubble called the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, which records the spectrum in ultraviolet light,” Churchill said. “Ultraviolet light cannot penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere and this is why we need to use a telescope in space.”
Gas plays a critical role in the creation of galaxies, according to Churchill. They form in regions where dark matter gravitationally collapses into large dense areas of the universe called halos. Normal matter, still in the form of gas, then gravitationally falls into the halos. The gas condenses, and then forms stars, which creates galaxies similar to the Milky Way, our galaxy.

“The interesting thing now is that it’s not just about gas falling into these dark matter halos, but as stars age many of them turn into supernovae explosions, and they can actually be so violent they can blow gas back out into the media around the galaxy,” Churchill said.

Churchill said what they don’t know is how much gas goes through the process or why some stars die in the explosions. The team will address questions about outflowing gas, infalling gas and galactic fountains. They will also investigate how the gas cycle regulates the shape of the galaxy and the formation of future stars and planets.
“So we’ve come to understand that there’s now a tenuous gaseous medium around galaxies that cycles,” Churchill said. “So you have new stuff coming in, stuff cycling out, some might escape and some might rain back down. This is the process that a galaxy would then evolve.”

He believes there are clear theoretical predictions as to what they should see in the telescope data.

“We will either see what is predicted by theory, confirming our current ideas about galaxy evolution, or we won’t,” Churchill said. “In which case, our data will challenge current theories and force us to think of new theories.”

Churchill’s NMSU team includes Anatoly Klypin, professor of astronomy, and graduate students Sebastian Trujillo-Gomez, Nigel Mathes, Nikki Nielsen and Jacob Vander Vliet. Amber Medina, physics major, will also lend a hand.

Jane Charlton, professor of astronomy at Penn State, serves as co-investigator with Churchill.
Collaborating on the project with them are Glenn Kacprzak, an Australian Research Council Super Science Fellow at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia; Michael Murphy, an assistant professor at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia; Anand Narayanan, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology in India; Daniel Ceverino-Rodriguez, a postdoctoral student at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, Spain; and Freeke van de Voort, a joint fellow at the Theoretical Astrophysics Center at University of California, Berkeley and the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taipei, China.

The teams will work in three main research groups, managed by Churchill and Charlton.

Churchill, Charlton, Mathes and Arayanan will retrieve the spectra from the Space Telescope Science Institute, calibrate it and then measure the gas properties recorded in the data.
“The data reveals the gas properties through absorption features in the quasar spectra,” Churchill said. “Each feature will be due to a different chemical element in the gas. After further analysis, we can obtain the chemical make-up of the gas, its density, temperature and its dynamical motions.”

Klypin, Trujillo-Gomez, Vander Vliet, Ceverino-Rodriguez and van de Voort are involved with the theoretical interpretation of the telescope data. They will be running cosmological simulations on NASA super computers.

“In these simulations of the cosmos, galaxies form and can be studied at high resolution and in great detail,” Churchill said. “The galaxies can be visualized in three dimensions. We then create synthetic telescope data of these simulated galaxies and study them to help interpret the real telescope data.”
Kacprzak, Murphy and Nielsen will study the images and spectra of the galaxies to obtain information such as star formation rates, chemical enrichment levels, dark matter mass, rotation speeds and morphologies.

“These details allow us to compare the gas properties with the galaxy properties and compare them with theoretical predictions and expectations,” Churchill said.

The Milky Way is more than 13 billion years old and recent Hubble Telescope studies have only covered nearby galaxies up to two billion years or 10 billion years and older, according to Churchill. He said this project provides a missing link in cosmic time.

“There’s this huge gap from two to 10 billion years that was not being probed at all, and with all the data coming in from those, we felt it was really important to tie together that gap in time, so we could understand the actual evolution in time,” Churchill said.
Telescope time is awarded through a highly competitive peer-review process, with a panel ranking the proposals before scrutinized by a special NASA committee.

“For this competition cycle, we succeeded in being awarded the requested telescope time to obtain data require to pursue our science goals,” Churchill said. “It is difficult to quantify the probability of success, but it is a bit like feeling you won the big-time lottery.”

Churchill’s observations will be part of the telescope’s Cycle 21, which runs from Oct. 1, 2013 through Sept. 30, 2014. He expects to receive the telescope schedule later this month, and the team will know down to the second when Hubble has their data. Once the data arrives, the scientists will begin to analyze.

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NMSU engineering students deliver product to NASA

This is the White Sands Test Facility Sniffer developed for NASA by NMSU electrical engineering students included Dylan Anderson, CJ Barberan, Chris Scherer and Chenyu Liang. (Courtesy photo)

Date: 2013-08-06
Writer: Emily C. Kelley, 575-646-1957, [email protected]

Not all recent college graduates can say that they have designed real world products for delivery to government organizations like NASA, but that is exactly what four New Mexico State University electrical engineering students did during their final year of undergraduate study.

Dylan Anderson, CJ Barberan, Chris Scherer and Chenyu Liang worked as a team to develop and deliver a project they call the White Sands Test Facility Sniffer to NASA as their senior capstone project, a graduation requirement for the NMSU College of Engineering.

Asher Lieberman, a project manager for NASA’s Propulsion Test Office at White Sands Test Facility, and an NMSU College of Engineering alumnus, presented the concept to the team of students during capstone orientations held at the beginning of the fall semester.

“The senior capstone project is absolutely critical to an undergraduate engineering degree. Our degree programs are jam-packed full of theories and techniques,” Anderson said. “While it is important to learn the technical background of engineering, it is equally important to solve a real problem and perform engineering in the real world. It is even better if the project actually engineers a final product or deliverable.”

Lieberman explained to the team that one potential hazard of working in a rocket engine test facility is that employees could be exposed to dangerous chemicals through leaks on piping systems, especially during the drastic daily temperature changes experienced in southern New Mexico. The NASA site has pressurized systems responsible for carrying hazardous and reactive chemicals to test stands. NASA is developing a chemical sensor to detect potential leaks.

“The problem for us was to develop a platform that could deploy this sensor to various locations throughout the NASA site and prevent personnel from being exposed to leaks,” Anderson said.

The students started with a basic robot platform, the Super Droid Robot SD6 Chassis. They added navigations systems, sensors and processors to the robot.

Barberan developed an error-corrected differential GPS system and selected ultrasonic range sensors with the ability to detect range out to five meters for the sniffer, while Liang and Scherer developed the sensor packages for the weather station on the sniffer. The weather station provides temperature, wind speed, wind direction and humidity data in real-time. Anderson was the primary software developer for the team and developed the operational interface of the system.

“With these new capabilities, we will have opportunities to make observations and take measurements without sending people into the area,” Lieberman said. “The rover the team developed for us allows us to sense things that may happen when people aren’t even at the site. It really gives us an opportunity to take some existing technologies and innovations and bring them together for us to do something new.”

The sniffer is intuitively controlled using an X-Box controller, an innovation Lieberman hadn’t expected.

“Students bring new, fresh ideas to problem statements,” Lieberman said. “The controller is easy to use and more intuitive than what we probably would have developed – and, it’s cheaper.”

“There was code available for the controller, plus, the ergonomics of the controller made it a good choice,” Barberan said.

The sniffer has contact charging capability, similar to that of the Roomba-style vacuum cleaner. The robot base is rugged and is capable of operating in many different environments, both inside and outside.

Some of the many challenges the team encountered included learning LabVIEW, a programming language; working with the federal budget and acquisition process and finding products compatible with the programming language.

“We had wanted the robot in December, but it wasn’t delivered until April,” Barberan said. “The whole Super Droid Robot cost around $10,000, and trying to convince them (the government) that we needed the robot right away was hard.”

The team had completed most of the design work before the Super Droid was ever delivered.

They assembled and tested the sniffer on campus during April, and had a couple of problems to work through.

“The CompactRIO processor just stopped working,” Barberan said. “Working through that problem was like a rite of passage for us.”

After completing work on the sniffer, the team presented their work to NASA, other undergraduate engineering students and a professor.

Lieberman was impressed with the product, but more so by the students, who were given a $35,000 budget and were able to deliver the product on time and on budget.

“This was an incredible bunch of students,” he said. “They are really talented.”

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