The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather

    Excerpt:

    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower

    Excerpt:

    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships

    Excerpt:

    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

5 days ago

Rotating Detonation Engine test-fired for first time at UAH’s Johnson Research Center

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

A new kind of rocket engine has been test-fired for the first time at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of the University of Alabama System.

It’s called a Rotating Detonation Engine (RDE), and UAH mechanical and aerospace engineering (MAE) master’s student Evan Unruh says it took him about a year to design and build it through UAH’s Propulsion Research Center (PRC). Unruh is advised by Dr. Robert Frederick, PRC director.

Seed funding was provided by Dr. Gabe Xu, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and a PRC associate, through the National Science Foundation’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research: Connecting the Plasma Universe to Plasma Technology in Alabama.

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“Once I have finished the developmental testing of the engine. Dr. Xu and his student Michaela Spaulding will be using the engine for that program to research the effects of transient plasma ignition on the detonation reactions within the combustor,” says Unruh.

Besides Unruh, Dr. Frederick and Dr. Xu, the RDE team is Dr. David Lineberry, PRC research engineer; Tony Hall, PRC test engineer; James Venters, PRC undergraduate research assistant; Jon Buckley, shop supervisor at the UAH Engineering Design and Prototyping Facility; Scott Claflin, director of power innovations at Aerojet Rocketdyne; and Spaulding, a graduate student who is also working on detonation engine research at the PRC.

Claflin’s RDE expertise has come in an unofficial capacity, Unruh said, adding, “The Propulsion Research Center is open to working with companies that are interested in researching and developing detonation engines.”

The engine was first test fired at UAH’s Johnson Research Center in late August and has had several firings since.

RDEs are a tantalizing engineering concept that could be transformative for rocket propulsion, offering better fuel efficiency than continuous-burn solid or liquid propellant engines if the inherent instabilities that make them run can be better controlled. Instead of a continuous burn, RDEs use a continuous spinning explosion to create supersonic gas and generate thrust.

“As a concept, RDEs may facilitate the design of more efficient rocket engines. This would enable rockets that could fly higher, faster and more efficiently, thereby enabling greater access to space than what we see today,” says Unruh, who completed his MAE undergraduate career at UAH before going on to his master’s.

“There are still practical roadblocks to overcome before detonation engines become a viable option, but if there weren’t, we wouldn’t need to research them. We hope to overcome these obstacles by better understanding how the detonation process works inside these engines.”

The UAH engine is intended as a test-bed to allow researchers at the PRC to study various phenomena related to detonation combustion in RDEs, Unruh says.

Most RDEs are cylindrical but Eagle Creek, Oregon, native Unruh’s engine is designed in a racetrack-like shape.

“By designing ours to have a racetrack shape, we are able to add optical windows in the straight sections that allow us to directly observe the detonation wave inside the combustor,” he says. “In particular, this optical access will allow us to observe interactions between the detonation wave and the spray plumes of the propellants as they are injected into the engine.”

Another innovation is the use of shear-coaxial injectors, the spray nozzles that inject the propellants into the engine. Shear-coaxial injectors have previously been used extensively in traditional rocket engine designs, most notably in the Rocketdyne J-2 engines on the Saturn V rocket, and in the U.S. Space Shuttle’s main engines, but not commonly in RDEs.

Designed for research versatility, the engine runs on a variety of propellants. It’s currently being tested on liquid propane and gaseous oxygen.

Typically, a liquid or solid fuel rocket engine – or a jet engine combustor – relies on the deflagration phenomenon to react fuel with an oxidizer, Unruh says.

“This deflagration phenomenon is typically a subsonic burning process that is propagated through heat transfer mechanisms,” he says.

In contrast, he says that a detonation reaction in an RDE consists of a strong supersonic shock wave that adiabatically compresses a fuel/oxidizer mixture, bringing it up to its ignition temperature. Adiabatic systems are more efficient because they transfer energy to surroundings as work without transferring heat or mass.

“The reaction then occurs behind this high-pressure shock, and the expanding gasses from the reaction in turn drive the shock wave forward, continuing the propagation of the detonation. This detonation reaction happens much faster than the deflagration-based reactions currently used in jet and rocket engine combustors,” Unruh says.

“Theoretically, the detonation reaction is more efficient, because it produces a lower increase in entropy than the deflagration reaction,” he says. “Furthermore, the chemical reaction in a detonation happens in the high-pressure zone right behind the shock wave.”

Think of the detonation shock wave in an RDE as acting similar to a piston in a car engine. Combustion happens at a pressure that is higher than the initial pressure of the fuel and oxidizer mix because each prior shock wave compresses the incoming mixture before combustion, a phenomenon known as pressure gain combustion.

“From thermodynamics, we know that when chemical potential energy is converted into thermal energy during combustion, the higher the pressure of the combustion, the more efficiently the released heat can be converted into useful work,” Unruh says.

“So, detonation-based combustion is more efficient than deflagration combustion because of a lower increase in entropy when converting the chemical potential energy into thermal energy and because the pressure gain phenomenon facilitates a more efficient conversion of that thermal energy into useful work.”

But theory can be tough to put into practice. So far no one has designed an RDE that is more efficient. The challenge is that in an RDE the propellants must be exploded supersonically rather than burned subsonically.

“As you might expect, exploding propellants are harder to understand and control,” Unruh says. “The RDE is one concept for an engine that shows promise of being a design that can detonate propellants in a controlled fashion and finally provide a practical realization of the theoretical promise of an increase in efficiency through detonation.”

RDE theory has been around since the 1940s and some primitive experiments were conducted in the past, but Unruh says that modern data acquisition equipment, better modeling and a greater historical collection of research is leading to a resurgence of RDE research. Engineers now have the capability to design engines that function in a rotating detonation mode.

“The next challenge,” he says, “is to further understand the detonation phenomenon so we can figure out how to finally build an engine that is more efficient than traditional deflagration-based engines.”

(Courtesy of UAH)

3 weeks ago

UAH leads $3.2 million solar software model effort to aid in space weather predictions

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA have awarded $3.2 million over three years to development of open-source solar atmosphere and inner heliosphere software models useful to predict space weather, a project led by The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of the University of Alabama System, with a UAH professor as principal investigator.

“We will develop an innovative, publicly available software that would make it possible to perform space weather simulations starting from the sun’s photosphere and extending to Earth orbit,” says Dr. Nikolai Pogorelov, a distinguished professor in UAH’s Department of Space Science and the UAH Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research (CSPAR).

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It is one of seven projects awarded. The project team includes UAH, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (co-principal investigator Brian Van Straalen), Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC; co-principal investigator Charles N. Arge), Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC; co-principal investigator Ghee Fry), and two private companies, Predictive Science Inc. (co-principal investigator Jon Linker) and Space Systems Research Corp. (co-principal investigator Lisa Upton).

The fastest NASA and NSF supercomputers will be employed. Dr. Pogorelov is one 49 awardees nationwide to get NSF-approved 2020-2021 supercomputing time on Frontera, the fastest NSF supercomputer. Time on Frontera is awarded based on a project’s need for very large-scale computing and the ability to efficiently use a supercomputer on the scale of Frontera.

“This project is aimed to develop a new data-driven, time-dependent model of the solar corona and inner heliosphere to predict the solar wind’s properties at Earth’s orbit,” he says.

“This software will have a modular structure, which will make it possible for its users to modify the individual components when new observational data sets become available from emerging space missions and our knowledge of the physical processes governing solar wind acceleration and propagation improves.”

In addition to the inner heliosphere model, the team will develop a new solar surface transport and potential field models to describe the solar atmosphere. That work will be done at Predictive Science Inc. and Space Systems Research Corp.

“All our codes will be easily extensible for further development,” Dr. Pogorelov says. “We expect that our software will serve the heliospheric and space weather research communities for many years.”

Space weather prediction

The effort focuses on the physical and computational aspects of software development but the team will use MSFC’s expertise to develop operational codes and add some features designed to simplify space weather community efforts to create new operational tools to improve space weather predictions.

“The development of successful numerical models and their application to space weather modeling strongly depends on the observational data used to run the codes,” says Dr. Pogorelov. “The expertise of GSFC and MSFC in data assimilation and analysis, and operational software design, will be of major importance for this project.”

Dr. Pogorelov is the leading developer of the Multi-Scale Fluid-Kinetic Simulation Suite (MS-FLUKSS), which will be used as a basis of the new software. He will coordinate software development and ensure a proper level of synergy. He will also promote the inclusion of the codes in students’ class projects.

Together with Dr. Pogorelov and a to-be-hired postdoctoral researcher, CSPAR researchers and co-investigators Dr. Tae Kim and Dr. Mehmet Yalim will supervise simulations in the inner heliosphere and perform quantitative evaluation of the simulation results.

Accurate space weather forecasting is important to a high-tech Earth, Dr. Pogorelov says.

“The solar wind emerging from the sun is the main driving mechanism of solar events, which may lead to geomagnetic storms that are the primary causes of space weather disturbances that affect the magnetic environment of Earth and may have hazardous effects on space-borne and ground-based technological systems, as well as human health,” he says. “For this reason, accurate modeling of the solar wind is a necessary part of space weather forecasting.”

Structuring of the solar wind into fast and slow streams is the source of recurrent geomagnetic activity, Dr. Pogorelov says. The largest geomagnetic storms are caused by solar coronal disturbances called coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that propagate through and interact with the solar wind.

“The connection of the interplanetary magnetic field to CME-related shocks and impulsive solar flares determines where solar energetic particles propagate,” he says. “Data-driven modeling of stream interactions in the background solar wind and CMEs propagating through it are necessary parts of space weather forecasting.”

Currently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Space Weather Prediction Center forecasts the state of the ambient solar wind and the arrival time of CMEs using an empirically-driven solar wind model.

“The new models will provide more accurate solutions and will all be scalable on massively parallel systems, including Graphics Processor Units,” he says.

“In addition to improving space weather predictions at Earth, our developed models and software will be data driven. They will be based on the observational data and shed light onto physical processes occurring on the sun and in interplanetary space.”

The research efforts will include conferences and training programs targeted to increase diversity and inclusion of under-represented groups, both inside the participating institutions and in the entire heliophysics community. Two users’ meetings will be organized at UAH, with up to 40 participants across the country.

The developed software will be promoted in classes and also through the US-Germany-South Africa Space Weather Summer Camp and NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) activity at UAH. Its advances will also be shared with the Alabama plasma physics community through the NSF Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) led by Dr. Gary Zank, chair of UAH’s Department of Space Science and CSPAR director.

“The project led by Dr. Pogorelov is the culmination of more than a decade of extraordinarily wide-ranging research activities that CSPAR and the Department of Space Science researchers have been engaged in, ranging from the physics of the large-scale heliosphere to particle acceleration models for solar energetic particles, heating of the solar corona and detailed solar wind models,” Dr. Zank says.

“Dr. Pogorelov’s project combines all these elements and takes the research to a new level of predictive capability,” Dr. Zank says. “This is a remarkably exciting decade for heliophysics research and it’s very exciting that CSPAR and UAH are very much at the center of it.”

(Courtesy of UAH)

1 month ago

DOE-funded UAH directed plasma research may advance pulsed fusion propulsion systems

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

A professor at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) has been awarded a one-year, $98,930 grant by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for plasma research that could advance pulsed fusion propulsion for spacecraft.

The grant funds work by a team led by Dr. Gabe Xu, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Dr. Xu’s team is working on how the deflection magnetic nozzle for a fusion propulsion system would work and how to scale it up to the size needed for a spacecraft.

“The research is a part of a larger study at UAH’s Propulsion Research Center (PRC) on pulsed fusion propulsion,” Dr. Xu says.

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On the team are Dr. Jason Cassibry, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; doctoral student Zachary White, who is doing his dissertation based on the project; Declan Brick, a mechanical and aerospace engineering junior; NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center; and a post-doctoral researcher.

“In the lab at the PRC, we’re doing small-scale experiments using relatively low magnetic fields, a few hundred to 1,000 Gauss, which is about the conventional limit in the lab,” Dr. Xu says. “With this funding, we’ll be able to go use the specialized high magnetic field facility at Auburn University that can general magnetic fields up to 40,000 Gauss.”

The researchers are studying how to deflect a spherically expanding plasma from a fusion reaction into the axially directed thrust needed for propulsion. The fusion reaction creates a ball of expanding plasma in all directions. But the half of that ball that is directed forward toward the spacecraft is not producing thrust, and can damage the spacecraft.

“So, we need to turn that plasma around so it all goes out the back similar to a rocket nozzle,” Dr. Xu says. “But we can’t use a physical nozzle to turn the plasma, since the plasma would dissipate and lose energy when it hits a physical object.”

Instead, the UAH team uses a magnetic field to electromagnetically turn the plasma.

“Our work is predicated on finding the mechanisms that create thrust in deflection magnetic nozzles, investigating the instabilities that occur between the plasma and magnetic field interface that could hinder thrust, and designing nozzle configurations and operating conditions that minimize instabilities and maximize thrust,” says White, the doctoral student.

“The DOE grant allows us to explore high magnetic field regimes that otherwise would not be available to us,” White says. “Our hope is that this will give us some insight into the plasma deflection in a near force-free field – a high magnetic pressure and low plasma pressure regime.”

“How to construct a magnetic field to do that, how the plasma responds and what kind of power is needed are the main questions of the research,” says Dr. Xu. “This is a great opportunity to conduct plasma research at very high magnetic fields that you cannot normally generate in the lab.”

The small laboratory plasma source Dr. Xu’s team is using was originally developed under a UAH led, nine-university, $20 million five-year National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program to develop new predictive plasma-surface interaction technologies. UAH’s Dr. Gary Zank serves as that project’s principal investigator.

The grant money was part of $13.3 million in new funding for research in plasma science recently announced by the DOE.

“This DOE program is great, as it helps investigators use the advanced facilities supported by the DOE,” Dr. Xu says. “The resulting gains from the research will improve our fundamental understanding of plasma-magnetic field interactions, as well as contribute to the fusion propulsion goal.”

Plasma science is an important area with many scientific opportunities and technological applications, says Dr. Chris Fall, director of DOE’s Office of Science. “The research funded under this initiative will enable the U.S research community to address very important research opportunities and help ensure continued American leadership in these critical areas.”

(Courtesy of UAH)

1 month ago

Support for telehealth and mobile health monitoring rises since COVID, study says

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

Support for telehealth and mobile health monitoring has risen among healthcare workers and consumers since the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study.

Dr. Emil Jovanov, a pioneer in the wearable health monitoring field from The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), participated and was a coauthor of the study conducted by a task force of experts organized by the Mass General Brigham (MGB) Center for COVID Innovation.

“According to our interviews with healthcare professionals, we found out that the support for telemedicine and tele-rehabilitation increased from about 10% before the pandemic to almost 60% now,” says Dr. Jovanov, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering who was selected as an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) fellow in 2020 for his contributions to the field of wearable health monitoring.

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“That can create a significant change in digital healthcare that would otherwise take decades,” Dr. Jovanov says.

According to the study, mobile health technologies (mHealth) create tremendous opportunities for monitoring, mitigation and testing in the COVID-19 pandemic and future pandemics.

Dr. Jovanov says the nation’s COVID battle could be assisted by an integrated mHealth system that can help assess who needs to be tested by providing relevant information through contact tracing, tracing of shared space and infrastructure, and monitoring of physiological changes.

“All this information can be used to inform decisions and optimize the use of resources,” he says. “An integrated system can also characterize disease spread by tracking spatio-temporal patterns of new cases.”

Dr. Jovanov joined experts from top bioengineering institutions across the globe for the three-month effort organized by lead author Dr. Paolo Bonato, an associate professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, and Dr. Bonato’s team at the Motion Analysis Laboratory, which he directs. The laboratory is located at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, a member of the Mass General Brigham Integrated Health System.

“The task force was assembled by recruiting experts in electronic patient-reported outcomes (ePRO), wearable sensors and digital contact tracing technologies to review and explore the use of mobile health technologies to monitor and mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he says.

“We identified technologies that could be deployed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to predict symptom escalation for earlier intervention, to monitor individuals who are presumed non-infected and to enable prediction of exposure to SARS-CoV-2.”

“Wearable monitoring has tremendous potential, particularly in extraordinary circumstances such as the current pandemic,” says Dr. Jovanov, who in 2000 was first to propose Wireless Area Body Networks and was the 2014 Alabama Inventor of the Year for a smart pill bottle he developed that’s licensed to the company AdhereTech and used by thousands of patients.

“A combination of off-the-shelf ubiquitous technology already in use, such as smartphones, smartwatches and wearable sensors, new advanced sensors and the integration of mobile health systems could better prepare us for dealing with the challenges of future surges of COVID-19 cases and to minimize the effects of future pandemics on routine clinical services,” he says.

The devices could provide early warning of onset, detect health deterioration that requires hospitalization, offer automatic triage and large-scale monitoring in improvised hospitals, and monitor patients after they are discharged to ensure continuity of clinical care services, says Dr. Jovanov. With Dr. Aleksandar Milenkovic, 15 years ago he implemented the first low-power wearable wireless body monitor in cooperation with Mayo Clinic to introduce the era of mobile health.

“Our task force summarized some of the opportunities that most of health professionals are not even aware of,” he says.

“We currently have more than 60 million wearable device users in U.S., more than double the users of five years ago. Last year, 20 million new smartwatches were sold. Device intelligence and ubiquitous connectivity create tremendous healthcare opportunities, as outlined in our paper.”

Home monitoring applications could be augmented with self-reporting of symptoms, a system that can be implemented at much bigger scale, Dr. Jovanov says.

“As a result, we can avoid unnecessary visits for people with some other conditions, like colds, who otherwise would come to see their physician and risk additional possible exposures to SARS-CoV-2,” he says.

“Teleconferencing in combination with monitoring of physiological signals and history of changes of physiological status would provide more effective help at home, without the need to take trips to physicians or hospitals.”

Personal monitors can detect COVID warning signs at very early stages, he says.

“Wearable monitors can also monitor heart activity and changes in the autonomous nervous system,” says Dr. Jovanov, who demonstrated the wearable wireless remote heart monitor in a personal area network 20 years ago at UAH.

“Even before the patient feels short of breath, it has been noted that they may experience desaturation which could be easily identified and monitored through an oximeter inside a healthcare facility, as well as in the home setting.”

In addition to the onset of COVID, wearable monitors can also track the recovery of patients at home and detect delayed cardiovascular and circulatory system problems caused by exposure.

“Most people have a long recovery from COVID-19, particularly in the case of other comorbidities,” Dr. Jovanov says. “Following trends of recovery, or even deterioration of a user’s state, the system can certainly raise the flag in real-time if the recovery is not going as expected or if the user’s state turns worse at home after release from hospital.”

In addition, monitoring systems would provide physicians with a record of recent health changes, instead of the snapshot of the patient’s current state that an examination provides.

Another very important application is monitoring of frontline healthcare workers, a very vulnerable population exposed to the virus daily, for possible infections or burnout.

Since wearable devices can detect other wireless devices around them, tracking of users and contacts can be automated.

“For example, an intelligent visitor’s badge can detect all the places a person visited and their contacts with other people,” Dr. Jovanov says. “If it turns out that the visitor was sick at the time of the visit, you can implement additional cleaning of places and testing of people that person was in contact with.”

Google and Apple are currently working to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus while maintaining user security and privacy.

“The main implementation barriers are related to privacy, not the technological issues,” Dr. Jovanov says. “We describe both systems and applications in our paper.”

In fact, most of the factors limiting applications of mHealth technology are not technology related, Dr. Jovanov says.

“There are many issues, ranging from Food and Drug Administration approval of novel sensors and applications to privacy concerns and even liability issues,” he says. “Those are not easy problems to solve because of the deep-rooted perceptions and possible misuse of technology.”

Because they are scalable and can be deployed in spaces with no infrastructure in a very short period, wearable health monitoring systems present an opportunity for field hospitals that may become necessary in pandemic outbreaks, Dr. Jovanov says. The same technology and system can be applied to different disaster scenarios.

As part of the research, the task force prepared a web-based questionnaire to assess requirements for contact tracing in hospitals and asked faculty at UAH’s College of Nursing and Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering to provide feedback independent of the current technological capabilities.

“We truly appreciate the timely feedback we received from our UAH colleagues,” Dr. Jovanov says.

“We believe that papers like this one can raise the awareness of the medical and technical communities and create truly multidisciplinary collaborations to implement new applications and develop new technologies,” Dr. Jovanov says.

“Massive deployment of mHealth systems provides the big data necessary to apply artificial intelligence methods to a fundamental understanding of underlying conditions, better and more accurate methodologies, personalized healthcare and more efficient mitigation of the effects of pandemics.”

(Courtesy of UAH)

1 month ago

NASA awards its Exceptional Public Achievement Medal to Dr. Michael Briggs

(UAH/Contributed, NASA/Contributed, YHN

NASA has awarded its Exceptional Public Achievement Medal for sustained performance that embodies multiple contributions on NASA projects, programs or initiatives to Dr. Michael S. Briggs, an assistant director of the Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research (CSPAR) at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).

Dr. Briggs, who is a senior principal research scientist at CSPAR, received the award recently for critical prior and ongoing contributions to the success of the Fermi Gamma-ray Telescope mission’s Gamma Ray Burst Monitor (GBM) project.

“I was surprised when the Steve Elrod, the GBM project manager, announced the award during a GBM tele-meeting,” Dr. Briggs says. “I thought that it was a routine GBM group meeting for updates. The GBM principal investigator helped fool me by asking me to give a status report.”

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Dr. Briggs arrived at UAH in November 1991 with a NASA fellowship to do research with the Burst and Transient Source Experiment (BATSE).

BATSE overturned the previous scientific consensus that gamma-ray bursts originated from nearby neutron stars. When BATSE wound down, Dr. Briggs became an original member of the GBM team. He worked on the formulation of the GBM proposal starting in 1999. Originally called the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST), Fermi is the home of GBM. It launched in 2008 and continues on-orbit as an extended mission.

“The team at NASA, the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) and UAH spent most of the 2000s building the instrument, which was launched in June of 2008,” Dr. Briggs says while emphasizing the importance of teams.

“These space projects are team efforts, the result of hard work by many engineers, programmers and scientists. MSFC and UAH jointly worked to develop and fly the BATSE experiment. The GBM detectors were contributed by Germany, led by scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Garching.”

In Huntsville, MSFC and UAH engineers and scientists worked closely together to integrate and test the instrument and to write the software, he says.

“MSFC, the Universities Space Research Association and UAH scientists and programmers continue to work closely to keep GBM running, provide the GBM data to the scientific community and to use GBM to make discoveries.”

Currently serving GBM as the deputy principal investigator, Dr. Briggs was the primary author of the flight software, which integrates 14 gamma ray detectors with the flight data processing unit, the power unit and the Fermi spacecraft. He was a pivotal team contributor during instrument development as well as through fabrication and testing, spacecraft integration and now with mission operations.

Dr. Briggs developed an unanticipated technique for using GBM to detect terrestrial gamma ray flashes (TGFs) and adapted this method to find weaker gamma ray bursts than are found by the flight software.

Within a few years of launch, GBM detected the strongest and closest gamma ray bursts that had ever been recorded. GBM’s high detection rate for gamma ray bursts led to a joint science and observation partnership with the Laser Interferometer Gravity Wave Observatory (LIGO) group. The LIGO partnership resulted in GBM becoming a major player in multi-messenger astrophysics.

“A high point of GBM was waking up one morning to learn that GBM had observed a gamma ray burst in conjunction with gravitational wave observation,” Dr. Briggs says.

In 2018, the GBM team received the Bruno Rossi Prize for the discovery of gamma rays coincident with a neutron-star merger gravitational wave event. The discovery confirmed that short gamma ray bursts are produced by binary neutron star mergers and enabled a global multiwavelength follow-up campaign. It cemented GBM’s place in astrophysics history.

According to NASA, Dr. Briggs’ capabilities in software, data analysis and his communication skills have played an invaluable role in the success of the Fermi mission, which steadily continues to perform in the extended mission phase.

His expertise continues to be in strong demand for future funded missions such as BurstCube, a Cubesat collaboration with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) that will search for electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational wave sources, and Glowbug, a gamma ray telescope for bursts and other transients developed by the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Briggs is also working on the LargE Area burst Polarimeter (LEAP), a mission that is one of four proposals approved by NASA for further review. Led by the University of New Hampshire, LEAP would mount on the International Space Station to study the energetic jets launched during the explosive death of a massive star or the merger of compact objects such as neutron stars.

Another MSFC project Dr. Briggs is involved with is the Moon Burst Energetics All-sky Monitor (MoonBEAM), a Cubesat concept to deploy gamma-ray detectors in cislunar space to probe the extreme processes in cosmic collisions of compact objects and facilitate multi-messenger time-domain astronomy to explore the end of stellar life cycles and black hole formations.

“Working with long-term and new collaborations, we are developing new projects to propose to NASA such as LEAP and MoonBEAM,” Dr. Briggs says. “We hope to continue the collaborations and have opportunities for the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

NASA cited Dr. Briggs’ instrumental role in locating, recruiting and mentoring sharp and resourceful graduate students who have worked directly for the Fermi GBM team, several of whom have moved on to exciting and noteworthy careers in astrophysics and space flight development.

Since his arrival at UAH almost 29 years ago, Dr. Briggs has worked with MSFC scientists and engineers on NASA projects in a continuing close collaboration on gamma-ray astrophysics that extends back to the 1980s with the start of the BATSE experiment.

“I picked Huntsville and BATSE because I thought that gamma-ray bursts were an exciting research topic,” he says, “and I have been here since then!”

(Courtesy of UAH)

2 months ago

UAH student rocket team takes third overall, first in safety at NASA Student Launch

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

A student rocket team at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) earned first place in project safety and third place overall in competition at a COVID-shortened national NASA Student Launch.

“The students worked really hard and faced a lot of technical challenges this year, not to mention a shutdown at the end of the spring semester,” says Dr. David Lineberry, team advisor and a research engineer at the UAH Propulsion Research Center (PRC).

“This is well deserved,” Dr. Lineberry said. “It would not have happened without support from the College of Engineering, the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, the Alabama Space Grant Consortium and the PRC.”

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The UAH team was mentored by Jason Winningham, who assisted in rocket launches and advised throughout the project.

“We are very proud of the accomplishments of the students and their UAH instructors and mentors,” says PRC Director Dr. Robert Frederick. “Safety is an essential part of rocket science and these experiences will serve them well as they transition to industry.”

Named Baedor and designed by the UAH Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering 490/491 Rocket Design team, the rocket carried a rover as its payload. It uses a Level 2 Aerotech L2200G solid fuel motor, is 136 inches long and 6.17 inches in diameter and weighs 61.5 pounds with a loaded motor and payload.

Little Dipper, the rocket’s rover, is piloted by remote control. Its mission was to deploy from the vehicle after landing, advance to a mission collection area and use its scoops to collect samples of simulated ice.

“During the spring semester, as segments of the country started to close down, the team recognized the potential impacts on the project and felt a sense of urgency to complete a demonstration flight,” Dr. Lineberry says. “After a busy couple of weeks, they were able to demonstrate the full vehicle and payload missions at a launch in Woodville, Ala., with the Huntsville Area Rocketry Association.”

Baedor achieved an apogee of 4,454 feet in its final demonstration flight, days before the UAH campus closed as a precautionary measure for COVID-19. When it landed, the rocket successfully deployed Little Dipper, which achieved its collection mission.

Competition category and overall winners were announced virtually by NASA on July 23.

NASA Student Launch challenges middle school, high school, college and university teams from across the United States to build and fly a high-powered amateur rocket carrying a complex payload to over 4,000 feet above the ground. The rocket then must descend and land safely before its scientific or engineering payload can begin its work. This year’s competition drew teams from 19 states and Puerto Rico.

College and university teams developed payloads to navigate to a designated sample site, retrieve a simulated sample of planetary ice, and navigate at least 10 feet away from the site with the sample stored safely aboard. How they tackled the challenge was up to them.

Teams earn points for progress and successes during the eight-month competition, and the team with the most points wins. Awards also are presented in 11 different categories that range from payload design and safety to best social media presence and STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – outreach.

UAH team members are:

  • Nicholas Roman, project manager; senior, aerospace engineering, Cullman, Ala.
  • Joshua Jordan, chief engineer; senior, mechanical engineering, Mount Vernon, Wash.
  • Peter Martin, vehicle team lead; senior, mechanical engineering, Coopersburg, Penn.
  • James Venters, payload team lead; senior, mechanical engineering, Huntsville, Ala.
  • Jessy McIntosh, safety officer; senior, mechanical engineering, Beaufort, N.C.
  • Maggie Hockensmith, technical writing coordinator and vehicle safety deputy; senior, aerospace engineering, Lexington, Ky.
  • Claudia Hyder, payload safety deputy; senior, mechanical engineering, Knoxville, Tenn.
  • Patrick Day, project management team; senior, aerospace engineering, Johnson City, Tenn.
  • Will Snyder, project management team; senior, aerospace engineering, Cleveland, Ohio
  • Rodney L Luke, vehicle team; senior, aerospace engineering, Pleasant Grove, Ala.
  • Roman Benetti, vehicle team; senor, aerospace engineering, Woodbury, Minn.
  • Rachel O’Kraski, vehicle team; senior, aerospace engineering, Huntsville, Ala.
  • Ben Lucke, vehicle team; senior, aerospace engineering, Saint Petersburg, Fla.
  • Jeremy Hart, vehicle team; senior, aerospace engineering, Gainesville, Ga.
  • Jacob Zilke, vehicle team; senior, aerospace engineering, Wilmington, N.C.
  • Joseph Agnew, payload team; senior, mechanical engineering, New Market, Ala.
  • Johnathon Jacobs, payload team; senior, aerospace engineering, Valley Head, Ala.
  • Thomas Salverson, payload team; senor, mechanical engineering, Gretna, Neb.
  • Kevin Caruso, payload team; senior, mechanical engineering, Lawrenceburg, Tenn.
  • Jacob Moseley, payload team; senior, aerospace engineering, Gaylesville, Ala.

(Courtesy of UAH)

3 months ago

Baudry Lab finds 125 naturally occurring compounds with potential against COVID-19

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

The Baudry Lab at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) has identified 125 naturally occurring compounds that have a computational potential for efficacy against the COVID-19 virus from the first batch of 50,000 rapidly assessed by a supercomputer.

It’s the first time a supercomputer has been used to assess the treatment efficacy of naturally occurring compounds against the proteins made by COVID-19. Located in UAH’s Shelby Center for Science and Technology, the lab is searching for potential precursors to drugs that will help combat the global pandemic using the Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) Cray Sentinel supercomputer.

The UAH team is led by molecular biophysicist Dr. Jerome Baudry (pronounced Bō-dre), the Mrs. Pei-Ling Chan Chair in the Department of Biological Sciences. Dr. Baudry is video blogging about his COVID-19 research journey using HPE’s Cray Sentinel system. His research is in collaboration with the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy and HPE.

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“We have used supercomputers to predict natural products most likely to bind to three proteins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” says Dr. Baudry. SARS-CoV-2 is the scientific name for COVID-19.

“Out of the 50,000 natural products that we have looked at using supercomputers, we find several hundred to be predicted to be potentially binding on the proteins of interest,” he says.

“We further found 125 – but there may be more – that are particularly interesting because they bind right where we want to, they are not too big, not too small and they have the chemical profiles of pharmaceuticals.”

There are many diverse natural sources for the chemicals of interest, Dr. Baudry says.

“Many are from relatively common medicinal plants that can be found in the U.S., and many are from more distant plants from Southeast Asia and South America, as well as from some ground and oceanic bacteria strains and fungi.”

Promising compounds will undergo a computational technique called pharmacophore analysis to find what the chemicals have in common and flag chemical features important for future research.

The next phase for the compounds is in vitro testing by a partner laboratory that will use live virus and live cells. Those chemical molecules found most efficacious will form the basis for future drug research and development processes that include testing for efficacy, tolerance and adverse effects in human trials. That process might also include chemical modifications to make the drug more efficient, better tolerated or both.

“Maybe we will need a cocktail of drugs, as is the case in many anti-AIDS treatments. But every drug that ends up surviving this long and winding road of development and testing starts as a hit that binds to a protein. It is this initial event that we are modeling here using supercomputers,” Dr. Baudry says.

“Normally it would take a very long time and a lot of money to achieve that, but with the supercomputers we can perform this initial hit discovery step much faster and cheaper,” he says. “Everything is being accelerated for COVID-19, so the whole process that can take up to a decade may end up being shorter here.”

More batches are being prepared for supercomputer testing, according to Baudry Lab researcher Dr. Kendall Byler, who is running the calculations on Sentinel. Dr. Byler is highly experienced in using computational approaches for natural product research.

“Actually, there are over 400,000 compounds we’d like to test,” Dr. Byler says.

Blocking proteins

In the initial batch, naturally occurring compounds were found that seem likely to bind to two important proteins, COVID-19’s papain-like protease, or PLpro, and the main protease, or Mpro. The proteins are enzymes from the virus’ genome that are responsible for processing all the virus’ proteins in infected cells. Infected cells are forced to manufacture them so that the virus can replicate.“If we can block these viral proteins from self-assembling and performing their functions inside the cell, we may not have been able to save that one infected cell, but we will prevent the virus from replicating and it will die with that cell,” Dr. Baudry says. “If we find a chemical that ‘sticks’ in these reactive regions of the proteins, the processing reactions will not be possible anymore and we will stop the infected cells from making and releasing more virus.”

The third protein of interest is COVID-19’s spike protein, which is how the virus attaches itself to a cell to initiate the infection process. This spike protein is present on the surface of the virus and gives the virus its characteristic crown-like (corona in Latin) appearance. It binds to a protein called ACE2 on the cell surface to begin the infection process.

“We are trying to find chemicals that would bind on the surface of the virus’ spike protein and prevent it from locking itself with the cell’s ACE2,” Dr. Baudry says.

In the initial batch modeled, scientists found the interactions of 24 compounds interesting in the spike protein, 41 molecules interesting in the main protein and 60 compounds interesting in the PL-pro protein.

“We can then have a good idea of what the natural products exhibit that makes them successful in these different proteins, and that is the starting point for screening larger databases of millions of chemicals much faster, helping chemists to synthesize novel molecules down the road, maybe more potent and more selective than the original natural products against these proteins,” Dr. Baudry says.

AI and ancient knowledge

Located in a Microsoft Azure data center in Texas, the Sentinel supercomputer makes the work more rapid than ever before possible and an HPE team is helping facilitate it. Dr. Baudry’s UAH team has access to Sentinel’s powerful capabilities through the cloud with Microsoft Azure.

Sentinel, which features HPE’s Cray XC50 end-to-end high-performance computing (HPC) system, is capable of computing 147 trillion floating point operations per second and can store 830,000 gigabytes of data.

Sentinel helps to cut compound testing time from months or even years to weeks, Dr. Baudry says. The supercomputer is as fast as the Earth’s entire population doing 20,000 calculations every second and has storage capacity for more than 45 years of high definition video.

The fight to prevent COVID-19’s sometimes devastating health consequences has created a new meeting of modern high-capacity artificial intelligence with humankind’s most ancient healing knowledge, Dr. Baudry says.

“Even five years ago, this would not have been possible,” he says. “It is fortunate for us that this kind of very advanced, very rapid computational power is available at this time when we need it so much.”

At UAH, the Baudry Lab collaborates on machine learning and big data in drug discovery with the laboratory of Dr. Vineetha Menon, an assistant professor of computer science.

The lab also collaborates in a separate COVID-19 compound search led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee and is working with the Alabama Supercomputer Center on COVID treatment compound research.

(Courtesy of UAH)

5 months ago

UAH boosts search for COVID-19 drugs using HPE Cray Sentinel supercomputer

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) professor of biological science Dr. Jerome Baudry is collaborating with Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) to use HPE’s Cray Sentinel supercomputer to search for natural products that are effective against the COVID-19 virus.

Dr. Baudry (pronounced Bō-dre) is the Ms. Pei-Ling Chan Chair in the UAH Department of Biological Sciences. The HPE partnership supports his collaborative work with the National Center for Natural Products Research (NCNPR) at the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy.

“What this team brings to the table is a novel technology based on very powerful supercomputers and a focus on natural products,” Dr. Baudry says.

The UAH and HPE partnership is in addition to the Baudry Lab’s collaboration with a COVID-19 compound search led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee and the lab’s work with the Alabama Supercomputer Center.

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“We use the laws of physics and chemistry with the Sentinel supercomputer to predict if a given natural product can ‘block’ the proteins that the virus needs to infect the cells and to replicate,” Dr. Baudry says. Natural products are chemicals made by living creatures, such as plants or fungi, and sometimes animals.

“If we can identify computationally such a natural product,” he says, “then we have colleagues who will test it in specialized labs.”

HPE has a long history of powering various research and discovery with its industry-leading supercomputing technologies. Through its Cray Sentinel supercomputer, which is located in a Microsoft Azure data center in Texas, Dr. Baudry’s team can access powerful capabilities through the cloud with Microsoft Azure to target specific drug discovery research.

HPE’s Cray Sentinel supercomputer, which features HPE’s Cray XC50 end-to-end high-performance computing (HPC) system, is capable of computing 147 trillion floating point operations per second and can store 830,000 gigabytes of data. It’s as fast as the Earth’s entire population doing 20,000 calculations every second and has storage capacity for more than 45 years of high definition video.

The first series of computations make extremely fast predictions, screening millions of chemicals in order to focus on thousands of them that offer the best potential for viral efficacy. Then a second series of slower computations provide very detailed processing of promising molecules to cherry-pick the few hundred that are predicted to be very efficient.

Dr. Baudry’s COVID-19 research journey using HPE’s Cray Sentinel system can be followed at hpe.com.

Forming the alliance

The idea for an alliance with HPE developed months before the COVID-19 crisis, following a meeting organized by NCNPR’s Dr. Ryan Yates to discuss how to integrate natural products, artificial intelligence and supercomputing.

“One of the presenters, Dr. Rangan Sukumar, is a distinguished technologist in HPC and artificial intelligence (AI) at HPE,” says Dr. Baudry. “He talked to his colleagues there and they reached out to us to inquire about the possibility of working together. That’s how this UAH/NCNPR/HPE structure came to fruition.”

As the collaboration was becoming more operational the COVID-19 situation developed.

“I was already involved with the ORNL-led COVID-19 research on a supercomputer, and so was HPE, and I suggested that in parallel we apply this UAH/NCNPR/HPE project to COVID-19 research. We talked first about the different pieces of the technology and we are now moving into integrating them.”

“When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, HPE was eager to help Dr. Baudry tackle complex computational research that will bring us closer to drug discovery for the virus. We wanted to help accelerate this process by offering the extreme scalability and advanced performance in HPE’s Cray Sentinel supercomputer, along with full system administration support, free of charge,” says Joseph George, executive director of Strategic Alliances, HPC and AI, at HPE.

“Our mission is to provide Dr. Baudry with the computing power he needs, and to enable him with a dedicated HPE team to manage system administration, assist with molecular docking software and optimize the scientific code, all in an effort to get to results faster,” says George.

Since natural products are coming from living organisms they do have a specific chemical profile, which brings to the table some chemistry that existing drugs do not necessarily possess, says Dr. Baudry.

“In that respect, looking at natural products can open doors that repurposing already existing drugs would not open,” he says. “Dr. Ikhlas Khan, NCNPR director, and Dr. Amar Chittiboyina, NCNPR assistant director, are very experienced at using these natural products as seeds for novel molecules for pharmaceutical applications.”

Dr. Baudry says what UAH is building with HPE and NCNPR is the science, engineering and technology to deal with a very large amount of data in order to find the therapeutic needles in a haystack.

“These very large computational approaches – both in terms of machines and in terms of techniques – are like the Saturn V of modern computational approaches,” he says. “We will need these extremely sophisticated concepts and machines to move forward and tackle problems that were out of reach even five years ago.”

At UAH, the Baudry Lab collaborates on machine learning and big data in drug discovery with the laboratory of Dr. Vineetha Menon, an assistant professor of computer science.

“That work will be leveraged also by this new collaboration with HPE,” says Dr. Baudry. “Dr. Menon is an important part of this UAH team, and this interaction with HPE scientists who are also working on these approaches will benefit both sides, as we have complementary experiences.”

In collaboration with Dr. Joe Landman, director of cloud services at HPE, and his coworkers, Baudry Lab researcher Dr. Kendall Byler is running the first calculations on Sentinel. Dr. Byler is experienced in using computational approaches for natural product research.

“Dr. Landman and his group have worked closely with us to fine-tune Sentinel so that it is very efficient for the kind of calculations we are doing,” says Dr. Baudry. “These unique supercomputers are not like desktops, you just don’t push a button and they work fast. They really have to be optimized for every kind of calculation we run, like tuning a unique musical instrument.”

The group has already performed about 200,000 molecular docking calculations. Dr. Byler is conducting the docking calculations for the natural products in the HPE/UAH/NCNPR team. He also conducts the docking calculations for drug repurposing as part of UAH’s collaboration with the Alabama Supercomputer Center and ORNL.

UAH graduate student Anna Petroff is also involved at the Baudry Lab. Undergraduate Corinne Peacher is working with Dr. Baudry and Dr. Menon.

“Working with the next generation of scientists is most certainly one of the most pleasant and most important aspects of this work, and a fundamental mission of UAH,” says Dr. Baudry.

‘Coming together’

Nationally, several groups of researchers are working on COVID-19 and many are using computational approaches. Each is learning from the others and applying different approaches and strengths to maximize the chance of success.

“What amazes me the most, frankly, is how we are all coming together to solve this crisis,” Dr. Baudry says.

“I have never seen anything like that, and I have conducted and led scientific research for over two decades. Everyone is working non-stop to advance,” he says. “A major academic institution like UAH, a major information technology company like HPE and a major national center like NCNPR are working together beautifully, and very interactively, to solve very complicated problems.”

The collaborations being developed with UAH “encompass the essence of discovery in Huntsville,” Dr. Baudry says.

“We have a very ambitious goal, not a lot of time to achieve it, a lot of pressure to do so and the need for very powerful new technology to do it,” he says.

“Huntsville’s scientific and technological psyche was built on the need to go to the moon in a few short years, and to develop a rocket large enough to take us there,” Dr. Baudry says. “Today, we need to address a terrible health crisis, we have a very short time to do it and we work with HPE and NCNPR to build a computational Saturn V to take us there. We have done it before; we will do it again.”

(Courtesy of the University of Alabama in Huntsville)

5 months ago

UAH reports record research results of $109.7 million in 2019: NSF survey

The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) achieved a record $109.7 million in research and development expenditures in fiscal year 2019 (FY19), according to the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) survey.

The university’s federal research expenditures have increased by 24 percent over two years. UAH had active contracts and research partnerships with more than 90 commercial companies during 2019. The university’s five-year contract and grant research total is $489 million.

“This achievement indicates the degree of trust our collaborators place in UAH research endeavors,” says Dr. Robert Lindquist, vice president for research and economic development. “UAH has a long history of science and engineering research and working together with our federal government and private sector partners to find creative solutions for some of the nation’s most challenging technological issues.”

Five UAH research thrusts rank in the top 20 nationally, according to the National Science Foundation:

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  • 5th in aerospace engineering
  • 8th in economics
  • 11th in computer and information sciences
  • 12th in atmospheric sciences
  • 12th in astronomy and astrophysics

Key research areas at UAH include:

  • Unmanned Aerial Systems – Working with the FAA ASSURE Program on ground collision severity.
  • Directed energy – Working with the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command to advance beam quality techniques and perform basic research on high energy lasers.
  • Hypersonics — Collaboration with the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command on technical issues of hypersonic flight, which generates high temperature and control issues at that speed.
  • Aerospace systems engineering – Performing research to advance Nuclear Thermal Propulsion for NASA.
  • Artificial intelligence (AI), including machine learning and deep learning technologies – Advancing science in remote sensing, data analytics, text mining, geospatial analysis, cybersecurity and object identification.
  • Space science and low temperature plasma (LTP) – A key part of the NASA Parker Solar Probe team that received the NASA Silver Achievement Medal in 2019. UAH leads an NSF 5-year $20 million LTP effort.
  • Basic science of the Earth atmosphere system – UAH maintains a leadership role in severe weather with VORTEX Southeast and water resource research.

(Courtesy of the University of Alabama in Huntsville)

6 months ago

Student team’s NASA Student Launch rocket and rover effort is successful

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

A student team at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) successfully launched a rocket with a rover as its payload in a national NASA Student Launch that was shortened by the COVID-19 virus.

Named Baedor, the rocket that launched on March 14 in Woodville, Ala., used a Level 2 Aerotech L2200G solid fuel motor. It is 136 inches long and 6.17 inches in diameter. It weighs 61.5 pounds with a loaded motor and payload.

“This year our rocket reached an apogee of 4,454 feet above ground level,” says Nicholas Roman, the project manager and a senior in aerospace engineering from Cullman. The team’s goal was 4,500 feet.

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When it landed the rocket successfully deployed its payload, the rover Little Dipper. The rover then was piloted by remote control to a mission collection area. There, Little Dipper used its scoops to collect samples of simulated ice.

“Our rover is designed to run on treads and is symmetric so that it can operate regardless of which side it is deployed on,” Roman says

Originally set as a payload demonstration launch before the viral outbreak changed the SLI schedule, instead the flight demonstrated the full mission of the UAH team’s rocket and payload. The SLI final launch previously been set for April 4 at Bragg Farms in Toney, Ala., was scrubbed.

NASA Student Launch is a research-based, competitive and experiential exploration project that provides relevant and cost-effective research and development to support the Space Launch System, or SLS. The project involves colleges and universities across the nation in an eight-month commitment to design, build, and fly payloads or vehicle components that support SLS.

The UAH team is advised by Dr. David Lineberry, a research engineer at the UAH Propulsion Research Center, and mentored by Jason Winningham, who has assisted rocket launches and advised throughout the project.

Funding has come from the Alabama Space Grant Consortium, the Propulsion Research Center and the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

Roman says the greatest development challenges have been funding, creating a functioning deployment system that met requirements and the poor weather cancellation of multiple test launch dates. Managing the process has been a learning experience.

“I have learned that a detailed schedule is very important in ensuring that everyone is properly tasked and that work is completed before deadlines,” Roman says. “I have also learned to put a large amount of faith in my team as they put incredible amounts of time and effort into this project to ensure it is the best it can possibly be.”

Besides Roman, team members are:

  • Joshua Jordan, chief engineer; senior, mechanical engineering, Mount Vernon, Wash.
  • Peter Martin, vehicle team lead; senior, mechanical engineering, Coopersburg, Penn.
  • James Venters, payload team lead; senior, mechanical engineering, Huntsville, Ala.
  • Jessy McIntosh, safety officer; senior, mechanical engineering, Beaufort, N.C.
  • Maggie Hockensmith, technical writing coordinator and vehicle safety deputy; senior, aerospace engineering, Lexington, Ky.
  • Claudia Hyder, payload safety deputy; senior, mechanical engineering, Knoxville, Tenn.
  • Patrick Day, project management team; senior, aerospace engineering, Johnson City, Tenn.
  • Will Snyder, project management team; senior, aerospace engineering, Cleveland, Ohio
  • Rodney L Luke, vehicle team; senior, aerospace engineering, Pleasant Grove, Ala.
  • Roman Benetti, vehicle team; senor, aerospace engineering, Woodbury, Minn.
  • Rachel O’Kraski, vehicle team; senior, aerospace engineering, Huntsville, Ala.
  • Ben Lucke, vehicle team; senior, aerospace engineering, Saint Petersburg, Fla.
  • Jeremy Hart, vehicle team; senior, aerospace engineering, Gainesville, Ga.
  • Jacob Zilke, vehicle team; senior, aerospace engineering, Wilmington, N.C.
  • Joseph Agnew, payload team; senior, mechanical engineering, New Market, Ala.
  • Johnathon Jacobs, payload team; senior, aerospace engineering, Valley Head, Ala.
  • Thomas Salverson, payload team; senor, mechanical engineering, Gretna, Neb.
  • Kevin Caruso, payload team; senior, mechanical engineering, Lawrenceburg, Tenn.
  • Jacob Moseley, payload team; senior, aerospace engineering, Gaylesville, Ala.

(Courtesy of UAH)

7 months ago

UAH helps nation catch up in hypersonic research

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his country’s “invulnerable” Avangard hypersonic nuclear missiles were ready to deploy, that focused attention at the United States Dept. of Defense on hypersonic development and testing.

That research will have a large impact on the future U.S. national security picture, and could also bring commercial benefits. Unlike the predictable parabolic flight of conventional or Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), hypersonic missiles fly at speeds greatly exceeding the speed of sound and can change trajectory to avoid detection or interception countermeasures.

“The Chinese and Russians are ahead of us in hypersonic R&D and testing,” says Dr. Steve Messervy, director of The University of Alabama in Huntsville Research Institute. “Just in the open literature, everybody knows they’re ahead of us.”

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The Dept. of Defense has assigned Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin, a former UAH eminent scholar and tenured professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, to put some thrust behind U.S. hypersonic research.

Under Dr. Griffin’s leadership, Dr. Messervy says funds have been allocated to the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the hypersonic field. Likewise, aerospace and defense companies are seeking answers.

UAH is well equipped to partner with commercial clients and the Dept. of Defense in hypersonic projectile testing and data acquisition to research what affects projectiles and aircraft flying at hypersonic speeds, Dr. Messervy says.

The university’s Aerophysics Research Center (ARC), operating from the Aerophysics Research Facility located on Redstone Arsenal, provides the government and commercial clients with a ready means of hypersonic scaled testing with its three, two-stage light gas gun systems that investigate the interactions of high-speed vehicles and their environments.

“I do a lot of work with the Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC),” Dr. Messervy says. “A lot of people are working on the technical issues of hypersonic flight, which generates high temperature and control issues at that speed.”

It’s a ballistics race right now, since the Russians have a boost glide hypersonic missile. The Chinese have built experimental versions.

“The idea is to make a missile change its parabolic flight pattern,” Dr. Messervy says. That can be done through aerodynamic design, control software, or both.

Areas of U.S. research interest include the thermodynamics of the bow wave created in front of a projectile at Mach 5 or higher speeds and the physics of the plasma field created by that wave. Both influence and affect projectile design, the materials used and the methods of flight control, Dr. Messervy says.

“The area that UAH works in most is helping establish some of the testing that will be required,” he says. The high costs of full-scale tests demand that prototypes first be researched by computer simulation and then in scaled testing, he says. Scaled testing is UAH’s forte.

One-eighth scale testing is where the so-called “big guns” at UAH’s ARC provide critical data that UAH scales up to represent a full-size flight. Sometimes ARC clients provide the projectiles, but typically, test projectiles are made to client specifications in the ARC machine shop.

UAH’s light gas guns simulate environments in which a projectile would actually fly, so it is possible to test it at various simulated altitudes at critical points along its flight path.

“We can invoke whatever environment we need to in the light gas gun,” Dr. Messervy says. “For example, we can make it look like flight at 70,000 feet, based on the air molecules contained inside the gun.” Software captures every aspect of the test flight and impact, generating needed data as the cameras record.

The ARC fills an essential function that cannot be supplanted in the testing chain, Dr. Messervy says.

“You can build all kinds of computer models, but how do you validate a computer model? You do some large-scale testing – but before you do that you do some scaled testing. The costs are just too prohibitive to do it any other way.”

UAH is also involved in a federal initiative to construct a center to perform hardware in the loop (HIL) simulation testing on the SMDC campus at Redstone. HIL testing is a dynamic systems technique that allows development and testing of real-time, complex systems in operation. Commercial defense firms will be partners in its development.

“UAH would like to help the government build this facility,” Dr. Messervy says. “What we are interested in, based on our testing, is that the hardware in the loop facility as it is built will be a long-term investment.”

When Dr. Messervy needs a physicist, he turns to Dr. Jason Cassibry, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, whose work is motivated by the lead our adversaries have.”We have a real scare here, a real threat,” Dr. Cassibry says. “Hypersonic missiles present a threat that no modern defense can stop, and we need to come up with solutions to that threat.”

A researcher for UAH’s Propulsion Research Center (PRC), Dr. Cassibry says the center is pursuing opportunities in hypersonic research in collaboration with those underway at the ARC.

“We’re very enthusiastic about the opportunities that are coming up,” he says, “and even though this is defense work at this stage, it will trickle down to commercial applications, which will benefit society if we can solve these challenges.”

As an educator, Dr. Cassibry teaches a hypersonics course every two years to build capabilities in students to pursue the work.

“We have seen a noticeable increase in enrollment this past fall,” he says. “The interest has built because of the rapid increase in funding in hypersonics.”

As a researcher, Dr. Cassibry works in numerical modeling in simulations.

“I’m interested in better integration of simulations with experiments in order to better understand the physics of hypersonic vehicle systems,” he says.

Closing the information-gathering gaps between simulations and physical testing will better inform researchers as they progress to full-scale tests.

“You just don’t know what might happen in a real-world test because of the myriad of complexities involved,” Dr. Cassibry says. “Increased collaboration between experiment and simulation groups will help buy down the technical risks of flight tests.”

Bringing simulation and reality closer together opens new insights.

“In an experiment, you might have some really great flight data in the form of imaging, for example, or you might have some data about the temperature inside the shock wave or boundary layer, but you can’t get detailed information along the surface, so simulations that validate the available diagnostic information can help fill in the gaps.”

If the data sets agree, he says, then a more complete picture of the forces and flow fields around the test body emerges.

“I’ve been working with a graduate student and collaboratively with companies and with the ARC and PRC in going after funding,” Dr. Cassibry says. “We are working on some test cases now to try to position ourselves for opportunities as they come along.”

His work could dovetail with the proposed HIL facility at Redstone Arsenal. Filling the gaps between simulation and physical testing “allows you to get a lot closer to a flight test without having to commit to the funds and risk associated with a flight test,” he says. It could speed development times.

UAH’s TranSonic/SuperSonic/WindTunnel (or TS/SS/WT) is another PRC venture, and principal investigator Dr. Phillip Ligrani is working in collaboration with other researchers on a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) that would see the $2 million facility doing hypersonic research.

“We’re developing ideas for a proposal for the NSF, and also continuing to talk with people who are with NASA and the U.S. Air Force and others who are involved in hypersonic research,” says Dr. Ligrani, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the university’s eminent scholar in propulsion.

The basic research proposal “will involve using the wind tunnel and also using predictions” to investigate control of heat transfer and thermal transport control through shock wave control in supersonic and hypersonic boundary layers.

The wind tunnel’s compressors and four 16-ton, 14-foot-long air storage tanks are capable now of achieving Mach 4 hypersonic speeds, he says, but the current tunnel piping and test section are rated Mach 2.7.

“We have the infrastructure to easily achieve Mach numbers up to 4,” Dr. Ligrani says. “Producing flows at higher Mach numbers is a challenge, because, at hypersonic speeds up to Mach 6, the pressures can be higher compared to a Mach 2.7 supersonic flow by a factor as large as 68.”

The UAH proposal involves research on hypersonic wave drag, an intense aerodynamic heating and drag created by vastly increased flow friction.

“It’s because the velocities are so high,” Dr. Ligrani says. “Velocity variations and velocity gradients are also very high, so there’s a lot of velocity change in a very short distance. That generates very high friction and very high drag.”

Understanding hypersonic aerodynamic heating processes caused by drag could lead to better leading edge shapes and materials to deal with the heat and pressure. UAH is already involved in aerodynamic testing of engine intake shock wave phenomena at supersonic speeds.

“There is very much interest right now in scram jets at hypersonic speeds, and the associated propulsion systems,” Dr. Ligrani says. “There’s also much interest in aero-engine intakes and how they perform at supersonic and hypersonic speeds.”

(Courtesy of the University of Alabama in Hunstville)

9 months ago

UAH SMAP and Nursing join in Jackson County Schools mini-mass casualty training event

(UAH/Contributed)

An all-day mini-mass casualty training event is planned for Jackson County school personnel on Jan. 6 at the Earnest Pruett Center of Technology in Hollywood.

The event is part of a preparedness program being coordinated by the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) Systems Management and Production Center (SMAP Center) and the university’s College of Nursing.

School nurses, teachers, principals and school resource officers from all 17 schools in the Jackson County School System will participate. The event is similar to a full-scale training scenario that was conducted by the UAH College of Nursing in November. Medical personnel, school staff and students will be assigned different roles that represent a real-world situation.

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Select students in the Jackson County system will also participate, especially those considering a nursing career.

The training is being supported and funded by the SMAP Center. The College of Nursing will lead the training and provide mass casualty response expertise and a realistic simulated environment. The SMAP Center is working with College of Nursing to provide 3D printed training aids and other technology.

The event is part of an ongoing prevention and preparedness effort by the SMAP Center in Jackson County schools.

“The SMAP Center’s School Safety Initiative began in 2013 as a response to the Sandy Hook massacre,” says Gary Maddux, SMAP Center director. “Our initial efforts focused on helping the school system collect and input data into the state-required school safety plan. We ramped up efforts in 2018 following the Parkland shooting with a new focus on prevention technologies and new ideas that address issues before engagement.”

The training event will focus on how and when to use Stop Bleed Kits that are being provided free to Jackson County schools by the SMAP Center.

Designed to be used to quickly stop loss of blood in the event of a shooting or other injury, the kits include a tourniquet, compression bandages, multiple configurations of QuikClot bandages impregnated with clotting powder, trauma shears, gloves and other needed items.

The SMAP Center has provided three Stop Bleed Kits to each school – so that they can be located at various places within a campus in the event of a lock-down situation.

In addition to the Stop Bleed Kit, the SMAP Center is working with the College of Nursing to provide free first aid kits to every Jackson County School System classroom including the EPCOT Center by Jan. 6.

“The most important variable in establishing the work in Jackson County is a shared vision of what we can do, rather than a focus on what can’t be done,” Dr. Maddux says. “While the SMAP Center initial effort was focused on prevention of an event, we realized that all events cannot be prevented. We realized that working together, we could address both prevention and response.”

The College of Nursing and the SMAP Center have been collaborating for about two years on a number of projects to enhance the development of cost-effective training devices. The two have consulted on multiple SMAP staff and student projects to create, envision and mentor biomedical engineering solutions and enhance and perfect prototypes and communication.

Those projects have included:

  • 3D printing of multiple healthcare models and disposable equipment;
  • multiple sclerosis lesion mapping and printing with engagement of the human brain through augmented reality;
  • injection task trainers and printing realistic tattoo wounds to decrease preparation time for clinical training in the simulation lab;
  • development of silicon prosthetic wounds to decrease training costs and increase realism.

“It’s amazing to be able to provide community focused interventions that can truly keep our communities safer through the multi-profession collaboration,” says Dr. Lori Lioce, executive director of the College of Nursing Learning and Technology Resource Center. “It’s such a refreshing and energizing collaboration. The synergy gets us out of our silos and truly sparks creative interprofessional solutions.”

Also involved in leading the effort are Dr. Marsha Adams, dean of the College of Nursing; Dr. Kim Budisalich, clinical instructor at the College of Nursing; Kevin Dukes, Jackson County superintendent; Jason Davidson, principal at Skyline High School; Pam Vernon, head nurse for the Jackson County School System; and Rocky Harnon, chief deputy at the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.

(Courtesy of University of Alabama in Huntsville)

10 months ago

Wetlands, crops can mitigate storm damage to coastal cities, study led by UAH finds

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

Coastal cities can be spared some wind destruction from intensifying hurricanes or tropical storm systems if they have functional wetland ecosystems and agricultural croplands in the area, according to new computer modeling research led by the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).

“Our study was about how changing land cover in coastal areas affects rain from tropical storms,” says Emily Foshee, co-author of the research and a research associate at UAH’s Earth System Science Center who analyzed the models. Dr. Eric Rappin from Western Kentucky University ran the numerical model experiments.

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The paper was published in Scientific Reports in November. UAH teamed with Western Kentucky University, the University of Nebraska, the University of Georgia, the University of Colorado Boulder, Purdue University, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to conduct the study.

Scientists used the model with a simulation of a flooding storm over Baton Rouge as a control and then modified the type of land the storm passed over to assess the effect. They modeled three land types: healthy coastal marshland, marshland that had become saturated or turned to open water and coastal land that had been converted mostly to agricultural use.

The ground moisture and vegetative buffering of healthy marsh impede storm intensification but increase rainfall in the model.

“If you want to keep the marsh ecology intact because you don’t want to lose all the other benefits of marshland such as preventing soil erosion and the wildlife and aquatic life benefits, and if you are concerned about how to have less damage from storm winds, then you must keep the wetlands,” says Dr. Udaysankar Nair, UAH associate professor of atmospheric science and the paper’s lead author, whose research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

“When you have a landfalling hurricane, if you have wetlands there, then there is a greater chance that the storm or hurricane will weaken,” Dr. Nair says.

Scientists modeled the effects on the Baton Rouge, La., region by using NASA land surface model data and data from an actual large flooding storm. Study findings, which support preservation and restoration of healthy marshes, may be especially important in Louisiana, which loses the equivalent of a football field of land to water every hour.

Agriculture continues to convert wetland in Louisiana to crop uses, and those practices tend to dry soils. Cut off from a source of water vapor, storms in the model that passed over cropland were less intense and windy. But there’s a tradeoff. Single crop agricultural lands don’t possess the erosion control and biodiversity benefits of marshland, Dr. Nair says.

The combined effect of healthy wetlands transitioning to cropland reduced storm intensity in the model no matter what soil moisture conditions were present.

The research says that if current trends continue, a substantial portion of Louisiana wetlands will transition to open water in coming decades, likely making the studied region even more vulnerable to heavy rain events from future tropical systems.

Marsh that has become super-saturated or has turned to open water, known as a brown ocean, produces the most damaging winds in the model, while at the same time spreading out rainfall. That’s because saturated wetlands or open water continue to feed energy into a hurricane’s system.

Air spirals in toward the eye of a hurricane, and as it does it has a tendency to cool, Dr. Nair says. While the storm is over warm open ocean, over open water resulting from conversion of wetlands, or over the brown ocean of a saturated marsh, the energy from the wet and warm surface offsets the cooling effect with warm humid air and the storm can continue to grow stronger.

“What happens when a hurricane comes ashore is that the land cuts off that source of energy,” Dr. Nair says. “Different forms of land cover affect the storm. What we found out is that it’s not just the water vapor that affects storms.”

The natural vegetation in healthy marsh has more buffering friction than if it has been converted to open water or agriculture, he says.

“If all these marsh regions are instead filled with water, essentially that is like the open ocean coming right to land,” Dr. Nair says. “Then you see more wind and more spread out rain, and more damage out of the storm. The storm will continue to intensify as it comes in.”

The work points to other areas for further study.

“If we do more of these kinds of studies,” Dr. Nair says, “then we can potentially be able to say something about how the patterns of land use change and land management affect landfall in hurricanes.”

(Courtesy of the University of Alabama in Huntsville)

10 months ago

UAH modeling the spacecraft for NASA’s nuclear thermal propulsion idea

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

Successful human spaceflight to Mars and back is bound by basic rules of physics that any home garage hot rodder knows: mass, power and fuel consumption. To complete the mission, there must be enough thrust to propel a spacecraft’s weight to the target destination and enough fuel economy to ensure there is adequate propellant.

Nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) can help achieve the goals of low weight, high power and good economy. An NTP engine uses low enriched uranium (LEU) to heat a lightweight propellant such as liquefied hydrogen to 2,800 degrees Kelvin through channels in the core.

The expanding gas exits the nozzle, providing thrust. If something goes awry and the craft crashes to Earth, the engine design and use of LEU reduce the chance of a catastrophic nuclear incident to near zero, as well as making flight safer for the crew.

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NASA studied nuclear propulsion early on with the roughly two-decade-long Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) program that ended in 1972. Current NTP research can be viewed as a modern-day progeny of NERVA.

“The heartbeat of the program at this time is demonstrating that the reactor elements can be manufactured such that they will function in and survive the intense environment internal to the engine,” says Dr. Dale Thomas, UAH’s eminent scholar in systems engineering, who is the principal investigator for a UAH research grant with NASA’s NTP Program Office.

Under the management of NASA researcher Dr. Bill Emrich, who teaches nuclear propulsion as an adjunct UAH faculty member, that testing is underway at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in the Nuclear Thermal Rocket Element Environmental Simulator (NTREES) facility.

As all hot rodders know, swapping engines can pose technical challenges. That’s why NASA has a research grant with The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) to model how a spacecraft might be engineered to work with NTP, en route to an eventual test flight. NASA is currently focused on determining the feasibility and affordability of an LEU-based NTP engine with solid cost and schedule confidence. The space agency has started looking into a potential flight demonstration as a follow-on project in the mid-2020s.

UAH’s Propulsion Research Center (PRC) manages the university’s role in the project. The university’s Complex Systems Integration Laboratory in its Rotorcraft Systems Engineering and Simulation Center (RSESC) is working closely with MSFC and private contractors to solve the challenges and exploit the opportunities created by a nuclear reactor at the heart of a rocket engine.

“We’re trying to figure out – assuming you can make the engine – can we fit it to the vehicle and make it work,” says Dr. Thomas, who incidentally is swapping engines to hot rod a classic pickup truck at home.

UAH’s research focus is not on the reactor design, but rather on modeling the spacecraft during a human mission to Mars.

“How does the utilization of NTP affect the mission architecture and the spacecraft design and operation within that mission architecture?” Dr. Thomas asks. “What all do we have to change in what we’re used to doing in designing a human crewed spacecraft?”

NTP is such a radical departure from liquid fuel rockets that even the NASA phrase “We have ignition” becomes obsolete because the propellant isn’t burning. The crew will be shielded from the LEU in the reactors and will “get more radiation from deep space than from this engine,” Dr. Thomas says. Yet the reactor poses other design challenges.

One of the first problems that NASA asked UAH to research is the heating effect that the NTP engine’s gamma ray and neutron emissions will have on the hydrogen stored in the propellant tanks.

“Hydrogen, which must be in its liquid state to be used as NTP propellant, must be chilled to near absolute zero,” Dr. Thomas says. “And it turns out that hydrogen is a great absorber of neutrons and a good absorber of gamma rays.”

As the hydrogen absorbs the particles, heat is generated.

A team led by Dr. Jason Cassibry, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, is modeling the behavior of the hydrogen in the system with the goal of keeping it liquid until the precise time it is to be expended.

“Storing hydrogen on a mission for months at a time is difficult, and every little thing that heats up the hydrogen is a problem,” says Dr. Cassibry.

His computer modeling explores the impacts of variables such as the craft’s trajectory and the design of the hydrogen tanks.

“Downstream of the reactor, we’re modeling the flows of hydrogen and using those to validate the data against the results from the NERVA rocket development in the ’60s and ’70s,” Dr. Cassibry says. “We’re looking at the fuel economy and the thrust that comes out of the cone.”

The initial modeling is being done at full power, but Dr. Cassibry expects that in a year or two, the team will begin to model the throttling process.

The stack of an NTP rocket begins with the nozzle, where liquefied hydrogen undergoes rapid expansion. Next up is the nuclear reactor, supplying heat to the nozzle. The reactor will only be powered up once conventional rockets have lofted parts of the craft into space so it can be assembled there. While on Earth, the reactor is in safe mode. Atop the reactor is the hydrogen storage, and atop that is the crew module.

Very cold and very light, liquid hydrogen is also a viscous fuel that can be hard to pump and utilize. UAH is investigating whether injection seeding the hydrogen with a noble gas such as argon would make it flow better. However, the argon seeding will affect engine performance.

“In rocket terms, you talk about specific impulse. How much energy can you get out of a fuel?” Dr. Thomas says. “When an engine is running hydrogen, it has one thrust level. If you seed it with argon, it generates more thrust, but at less efficiency.”

The researchers are investigating whether seeding improves thrust enough make up for the loss of efficiency, while at the same time conferring the benefit of better fuel flow.

NTP engines generate high thrust at over twice the specific impulse of the best chemical combustion engines. They also provide engineers with new opportunities for innovation.

“That’s why NASA brought us on board, to explore opportunities and to kind of look off into the distance to see what might be accomplished,” says Dr. Thomas.

One possibility that would appeal to a hot rodder: Add a conventional combustion component to the nuclear engine. Adding an oxygen tank to create an afterburner that ignites the hydrogen coming out of the nozzle could significantly boost thrust when needed.

Another intriguing opportunity lies in the reactor’s waste heat.

“When you look at it, a Mars spacecraft is going to require a big solar array to get its power, and that creates design challenges of its own in weight and strength,” Dr. Thomas says. “Plus, the farther away you get from the sun, the less efficient those arrays are going to be.”

Because it’s difficult to turn the reactor off and on due to the thermal effect on its materials, it has to idle when not in use. While idling, the reactor continues to generate heat. Perhaps hydrogen can be directed through the core to carry that heat to radiators coated with a thermoelectric compound that generates electricity, Dr. Thomas suggests. Or the heat could be used to run a mechanical generator.

“If we tap the power off the reactor, we may be able to do away with the array,” he says.

Exploring these kinds of design challenges and opportunities attracts graduate students to UAH from universities across the country, according to Dr. Thomas.

“It’s amazing, the team we have been able to build,” he says.

Besides Dr. Thomas and Dr. Cassibry, the NASA grant currently supports four graduate research assistants (GRAs). They are doctoral candidates Alex Aueron and Samantha Rawlins, and masters student Dennis Nikitaev. The team added another GRA position this fall and Dr. Thomas anticipates UAH’s role will expand in the future.

“My attraction to NTP research stems from the understanding that, from a technical standpoint, nuclear thermal propulsion is hands-down the best way to get humans to Mars in my lifetime,” Rawlins says. Because of their orbits, the energy required to travel from Earth to Mars reaches minimum expenditure every 16 years. The next opportunity is in 2033.

“We got to the moon in 8 years, so this is definitely possible, but it’ll require making sure we play our cards right,” Rawlins says.

“That’s what’s so exciting about working with Dr. Thomas on my research within the Complex Systems Integration Laboratory,” she says. “We’re using systems engineering to look ahead, question our current process and identify potential solutions or alternatives before they even become an issue.”

It’s the UAH team’s job to smooth the path for NASA to help it get to Mars, Rawlins says.

“With this research, it feels great to contribute to the next ‘giant leap for mankind,’ sending humans to Mars,” says Nikitaev. “The most challenging task is figuring out how to make all the components work together in a high fidelity NTP engine simulation.”

Being able to intellectually dream about possibilities “is one of the very best things I like about being at UAH,” says Dr. Thomas, who joined the university in 2015 after being associate center director (technical) at MSFC.

“What we’re doing here has wider implications for other areas,” he says. “NTP moves the ball on Dr. Cassibry’s work on PuFF (the Pulsed Fission-Fusion engine). It could even lead to a single stage to orbit engine.”

A hybrid NTP single stage to orbit engine could lead to the resurrection of a program similar to Lockheed Martin’s X-33, a NASA Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) testbed that was scheduled to fly 15 suborbital test hops before it was canceled in 2001.

“There’s potential to come up with an air-breathing engine in the thick atmosphere,” Dr. Thomas says, “and then use nuclear power once we get out of the atmosphere.”

(Courtesy the University of Alabama Huntsville)

1 year ago

Discovery of an endangered species in a well-known cave raises questions

On the day the shrimp was discovered, the team was working on documenting any life it could see says Dr. Niemiller, shown here during a biological survey of a cave in Coffee County, Tenn. (Chuck Southerland)

You’d think there’d be no way someone could newly discover an endangered species hanging out in Fern Cave in the Paint Rock River valley of Jackson County, so close to Huntsville, home to thousands of spelunkers exploring every cave, nook and cranny.

But Matthew Niemiller and colleagues did.

In a discovery documented in a paper in the journal “Subterranean Biology,” Dr. Niemiller, an assistant professor of biological sciences at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), found a specimen of the Alabama Cave Shrimp Palaemonias alabamae while doing a biological survey of Fern Cave in summer 2018 as part of a team of four.

The endangered shrimp had previously only been discovered in six caves in four cave systems in Madison County.

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“Fern Cave is the longest cave in Alabama, with at least 15 miles of mapped passage and five to seven distinct levels,” Dr. Niemiller says. The cave features a 437-foot deep pit and exploring most of its lower levels is reserved only for the very fittest, since the trip involves an arduous journey including drops to be rappelled.

Dr. Niemiller and team’s route to their discovery was no easy feat, either. The team entered the cave’s bottom level via the Davidson Entrance at the base of Nat Mountain on the Fern Cave National Wildlife Refuge. The section of Fern Cave is only dry enough for exploration without scuba gear at the height of summer. Otherwise, it takes a dive to explore its flooded passages.

“You go in that entrance, and immediately you are in water up to your chin,” Dr. Niemiller says. From there, the journey twists and turns through tight spots and chambers, and the team sloshed through plenty of water at times.

The biological surveys of Fern Cave are part of a two-year project funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) that has involved over 20 biologists, hydrogeologists, and cavers to date from several organizations, including USFWS, UAH, U.S. Geological Survey, The Nature Conservancy, Southeastern Cave Conservancy, Inc., Kentucky Geological Survey, Huntsville Grotto and Birmingham Grotto.

The scientists relied on the knowledge and expertise of Steve Pitts who has mapped much of Fern Cave and is its guardian for the Southeastern Cave Conservancy Inc. “He has visited the cave more than any person alive, more than 450 times. Without Steve, this project wouldn’t be possible,” Niemiller says.

“We went there to look for everything,” Dr. Niemiller says. “It’s the biggest cave in Alabama, but really, we didn’t know much about it from a biological perspective.”

The cave houses the largest winter colony of federally endangered gray bats (Myotis grisescens), and there are other commonly found cave dwellers, like salamanders and millipedes.

“We were working on documenting any life we could see,” Dr. Niemiller says. “We’re looking at the ceiling, in the water and on the floor to see what we could find. We’re looking under rocks and into crevices, as well – every nook and cranny.”

Team members meticulously documented their findings in notebooks and took photos of specimens. In cases where the species was not readily identifiable, they collected voucher specimens for later study.

“We came up on this passage where we could see there was a muddy bank, a place that maybe at other times of the year you didn’t want to be, an area that was clearly underwater for most of the year,” Dr. Niemiller says.

At this spot there were vestigial pools, left when the water receded in the dry summertime. Dr. Niemiller peered into one.

“We are finding cave crayfish, cavefish and sculpin in this pool. Then I looked down and saw this weird thing, this little white crustacean swimming toward me, and I said, ‘That’s a cave shrimp!’”

The team collected a live sample because at the time it was unsure if the specimen was actually the endangered shrimp or possible a new undescribed species. After leaving the cave, Dr. Niemiller called USFWS and got permission to retain the specimen, which is now housed in the Auburn University Museum of Natural History.

But there’s more. The team found three other cave shrimp on that day in August 2018 and observed another two on a return trip in July of this year. The little animals pose some interesting questions for science.

First of all, there’s the Fern Cave location, in the Paint Rock River watershed, which led Niemiller to wonder if the shrimp was an undescribed species. However, the shrimp found at Fern Cave have been morphologically and genetically linked to those found in Madison County, a different watershed area.

“Fern Cave is in a different county and a different location than the other caves where this species has been found,” Dr. Niemiller says. How did the Alabama Cave Shrimp make it there?

Little is known about the shrimp’s ecology. How does it breed, what is its lifespan, how does it survive and what foods does it eat? And why and when did the shrimp lose its eyesight and live in caves?

“Does this species represent something that went underground a million years ago? Two million? Five million?” Dr. Niemiller asks.

What are its closest relatives? “We need to explore the genetics of the species in more detail to find that out.”

Perhaps the most interesting question is, what is the actual range of the shrimp, since it was newly found in a distinct watershed.

“We have to get a better understanding of the distribution of the shrimp,” Dr. Niemiller said. “We’re hoping to get additional funding to survey other sites in Alabama for the presence of the cave shrimp and other cave species of conservation concern.”

After all, perhaps the Alabama Cave Shrimp is doing better than scientists think, even though a population has disappeared in one cave in Huntsville where it was seen in the early 1970s.

Caves in this region of the country are far more extensive than they are amenable to human exploration, and here the tiny shrimp has had scientific impact. Dr. Niemiller’s team has developed a genetic assay that uses the shrimp’s environmental DNA. Shed in the normal course of living, this DNA could be detected in water samples taken from caves and springs by the assay, allowing science to peer into inaccessible areas in search of Palaemonias alabamae.

In northern Alabama and southern Tennessee, cave systems often are so extensive that anyone could be standing atop a habitat for the Alabama Cave Shrimp and not even know it.

“It could be right under your feet,” Dr. Niemiller says. “It could be in a cavity, a well or a cave system underground.”

Tiny cave passages too small to explore link together with underground gravel deposits flowing with water to offer lots of species habitats and opportunity for dispersal, and most of them science as-yet knows nothing about. In this respect, biological cave exploration is much like exploring the deepest recesses of the oceans.

“That’s what draws me to it,” Dr. Niemiller says. “Every cave is different, and differently populated. We’re making many new discoveries.”

(Courtesy of the University of Alabama in Huntsville)

1 year ago

Relive Apollo era’s technologies and people through UAH archives

(Michael Mercier, UAH)

Maybe you’re inspired by the coming July 20 anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. Or maybe you want to build your own rocket ship, yet avoid beginner’s mistakes.

Whatever the inspiration, you can literally relive the development of technologies that made the Apollo moon landing and first walk on the moon possible at the M. Louis Salmon Library at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).

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Extensive collections of NASA materials produced during the development of the Saturn V rocket and materials from the Apollo era space programs reside in the archives on the ground floor of the library and are available to the general public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“This documentation was actually going on during the Apollo launch process,” says Reagan Grimsley, the library’s head of special collections and archives. “It’s the technical documentation that allows us to know about the Saturn program.”

The 40 linear feet of archived materials range from the early 1960s to the early 1970s and provide a ringside seat to the development processes NASA underwent to build, test and transport the necessary machinery to put man on the moon. Included are personal papers, oral histories and diaries from many scientists who were instrumental in the race to space.

“The space program was not just about technological development. It was about people, and we’ve tried to represent that aspect well in our collection,” Grimsley says.

The library moved the archives to their current location in 2001, and an enclosed reading room was built where anyone who wants to peruse the collections can do so simply by asking.

“You can go back and look at the updates and see the Saturn V project as it moves along,” say Grimsley while leafing through a vintage NASA document in archive storage.

Want a quicker view? Many of the space program archives are digital and available online.

Working under a Shooting for the Moon grant, staff are digitizing the oral histories in the collection so that they can be made available online, a process that has involved restoring the sound from hundreds of hours of magnetic tape recordings.

People involved in the space program, their relatives and space aficionados are constantly adding more materials to the expanding archives, Grimsley says, which is something that makes him happy.

“We have a pretty good pipeline,” he says.

Gathering materials is one part detective work, one part donor enthusiasm and one part sheer luck, but the process serves some very specific goals.

“First of all, we want to document Alabama’s role in the space race, but our collection is international in scope,” Grimsley says. “Our overall goal is that we want to be one of the pre-eminent institutions involved in space history research.”

Apollo materials also include documentation of the development of the Lunar Rover, including the papers of the Saverio “Sonny” Morea, designer and project lead for the rover, who also was the NASA manager for the F-1 and J-2 engines.

“We have probably the most complete documentation of the Lunar Rover anywhere,” Grimsley said.

Copies of a publication called “Space Journal” that was produced in Huntsville for about two years beginning in 1957, with the direct involvement of Dr. Wernher von Braun, are being digitized.

“We worked with the Von Braun Astronomical Society to digitize as many copies of the ‘Space Journal’ as we could get a hold of, and put them in our collection,” Grimsley says.

In collaboration with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), Salmon Library began to gather space agency materials when a 1967 NASA grant proposal written by Dr. Rudolph Hermann, the first director of the UAH Research Institute, was funded. Dr. Hermann’s papers are also in the archives.

Found in the NASA archives are major collections donated by:

  • Konrad Dannenberg, also brought to the U.S. from Germany, who was deputy manager of the Saturn program;
  • David Christiansen, who worked on liquid rocket propulsion systems for the Redstone, Jupiter and Saturn rockets and was project engineer for the Saturn H-1 rocket engine;
  • Ernst Stuhlinger, who was brought to the U.S. from Germany after WW II as part of Operation Paperclip and developed guidance systems;
  • Charles Lundquist, former director of the Space Sciences Laboratory at MSFC, who spent 40 years in high-level positions with the U.S. Army, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and NASA.
  • U.S. Rep. Bob Jones, who represented Alabama’s Fifth District from 1973-1977 and had in the collection that he donated many papers that pertained to the development of the Apollo program from a legislative point of view.

The Saturn V and Apollo materials are part of a wider space-oriented collection that includes original film shot by Skylab during its 1973-1974 mission. Also part of the wider collection is an extensive cache of science fiction books, many of which could have been formative in the young minds of future space race leaders.

“We want to document space history,” Grimsley says, adding that the library is always interested in hearing from people who are interested in donating material that furthers that goal.

“When you think of the legacies of UAH regarding the space program, one of the legacies is in this collection,” Grimsley says. “The other UAH legacy is in the people we trained who became part of the space program.”

(Courtesy the University of Alabama in Huntsville)