UTEP 'Space Miners' Fly on Research Aircraft to make Structural Materials from Lunar Dust and Evaluate Welding in Microgravity
April 22, 2011 | UNIVERSITY COMMUNICATIONS
NASA has selected two teams of UTEP's mechanical engineering students for microgravity experiments onboard research aircraft.
First team (Jorge Frias – team leader, Armando Delgado, Joseph Hernandez, and Mario Rubio) was selected for NASA's System Engineering Educational Discovery Program in December 2010. NASA suggested that the team would propose and develop an experiment that is related to using construction techniques in microgravity, which is important for maintenance and repair in space missions. The team decided to investigate the so-called exothermic welding. This technology is based on the combustion of aluminum/copper oxide mixture (called thermite) and it has been used in industrial applications. The thermite welding is also of interest for using in space missions. It is unclear, however, whether this technology will work in microgravity. For a very short time, the team designed and constructed a rather complicated experimental rig for study of exothermic welding in microgravity. In the meantime, Joseph Hernandez received his B.S. degree and accepted a job offer from Raytheon, so he was replaced by another student, Alberto Delgado. On April 8, the team accomplished two flights onboard reduced-gravity research aircraft at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Most samples were successfully ignited in microgravity. Currently, the team is planning to analyze the obtained welds using material characterization techniques available at UTEP's College of Engineering and to compare the results with the properties of welds obtained at normal gravity.
The second UTEP team, led by Christopher White and Francisco Álvarez, was selected to participate in the microgravity flight program for students of minority serving institutions and community colleges. To be selected, the team submitted a research proposal titled "The Effect of Gravity on the Production of Structural Materials from Lunar Regolith." The proposed experiment continues the research that Chris and Francisco are conducting in UTEP's Center for Space Exploration Technology Research, sponsored by NASA. Specifically, they study combustion of the lunar regolith simulant mixed with metals such as aluminum and magnesium. Similarly to the thermite mixtures studied by Jorge Frias' team, these mixtures are combustible. Upon ignition, the regolith/metal mixture exhibits self-sustained propagation of the combustion wave, which may produce construction materials such as tiles and bricks. Since the gravity on the Moon or Mars is less than on Earth, it is important to study the effect of gravity on the combustion process and product properties. This is the goal of the proposed experiment onboard the reduced-gravity aircraft. Currently, the team is constructing the experimental rig for these experiments.
Both teams are advised by Dr. Evgeny Shafirovich, who has experience in conducting microgravity experiments onboard three research aircraft (French A300 Zero-G and NASA's KC-135 and C9-B). The teams' work is sponsored by the Center for Space Exploration Technology Research. Frias' team also received support from the Texas Space Grants Consortium.