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.

3 weeks 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)

3 months 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)

5 months 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)