Tech students watch experiment blast off

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At 9:15 a.m. on Nov. 12, New Mexico Tech professor Dr. Andrei Zagrai and his mechanical engineering students watched their brain child experiment blast off in a NASA rocket at Spaceport America.

The SL-8 launch was the 20th vertical launch blasting off from the vertical launch pad at the spaceport since 2006 ,according to Spaceport America media relations officer David Wilson. The first launch, Wilson said, was in 2006.

SL-8, also known as SpaceLoft XL 8, reached suborbital space and dropped back down to earth in a time of 15-minutes and 20 seconds.

This was the second launch at the spaceport of the NASA Flight Opportunities Program and the 12th flight conducted by UP Aerospace, a long-term spaceport customer, Wilson said. The Flight Opportunities program is designed to provide suborbital payload launch resources for NASA and other government agencies, as well as for educational institutions and the private sector.

The Tech team provided one of eight of the payload experiments going up with the rocket.

So when Tech grad students Ben Cooper and Jon Schlavin along with a number of other mechanical engineering students watched the result of 2 1/2 years of work blast into space “it was a good feeling,” Cooper said.

The Tech team is studying structural health monitoring for commercial space vehicles. They are working on a device that would address the safety of commercial space vehicles.

Leading the Tech team, Zagrai compared the concept of structural health monitoring to human health care.

If a person’s body starts feeling pain, they can take steps to alleviate the pain immediately as needed. The body can heal itself.

“The body does self diagnostics,” Zagrai said. “We are creating smart structures that can self diagnose and sometime even self repair.”

The structural engineers are still working on the diagnostic side of the equation.

For example, Zagrai said, right now the Federal Aviation Administration mandates an airplane structure needs to be investigated at certain intervals. If they can self monitor, they would be able to continually know what’s going on with the structure.

Currently engineers can calculate structural integrity and say when a bridge, or plane, needs to be replaced.

“Today’s engineering is now shifting into real-time sensors,” he said. “We can design lighter structures and see huge economic benefits if we can pinpoint damage when it occurs.”

Zagrai said this technology is transferring more and more to aircraft and now into space flight. Space flight is still considered so dangerous that those signed up to go on a flight are considered “participants” and not “passengers,” for insurance reasons.

“We see this as an opportunity to make space flight safer and cheaper,” he said of the Tech project.

On the SL-8 flight, Zagrai and his students had a number of things going on in their payload. A variety of wire, temperature and strain sensors went up in the payload.

“We also had it wired for embedded ultrasonics,” he said.

When a structure breaks, it produces sounds — an acoustic emission. By measuring wave propagation, or ultrasonics, a sensor is able to detect things like loose bolts, cracks in structures and sensor performance.

“On the wireless and wave propagation, we really got good data,” Zagrai said. “Science is looking at the sound speed in space metals. We collected the sound speed.”

This was the mechanical engineer department’s second Flight Opportunities launch, Zagrai said. In January, he and his students were able to launch a similar payload as part of SL-5, a high-altitude balloon launch held in Oregon.

“It was a long-term endurance flight,” he said.

Other experimental payloads on SL-8 included a power supply system built by UP Aerospace, several GPS experiments and the application of controlled vibrations to multiphase systems for space applications.

Students at New Mexico State University sent up a free floating controls algorithm experiment.

The team had a mass, about the size of an apple, free floating inside a space in the rocket. They were attempting to find a way to measure the center of mass of an object in weightless conditions.

NMSU graduate student Gerardo Martinez said he has been working on the question since 2008 and the experiment on the flight has been three years in the planning.

SatWest Communications had a payload on SL-8 described as an iridium telemetry experiment. M. Brian Barnett, with SatWest, described it as the first text message to space.

When the flight data for SL-8 indicated the rocket attained a maximum altitude of approximately 116 km or 72.2 miles, the parachute recovery system brought the SpaceLoft rocket and its payload safely back. It was recovered intact approximately 25 miles downrange on White Sands Missile Range as planned.

“It is great to have NASA back at Spaceport America and to have the opportunity to support their second Flight Opportunities suborbital launch today,” said New Mexico Spaceport Authority Executive Director Christine Anderson.