UCF researchers are designing the next generation of space technology
University of Central Florida researchers are helping develop the next generation of space technologies and vehicles for missions to the Moon and beyond.
This range of technologies includes advanced high-speed propulsion systems for interplanetary travel, lunar landing pads that self-assemble as a rocket descends, a helicopter-like helicopter lander that will travel nearly a billion miles to fly over the surface of Titan, Saturn’s moon, and sail for solar-powered space travel.
The work reflects UCF’s role as a leader in generating the technology and manpower needed for the nation’s new space race.
Propulsion work, led by UCF Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Kareem Ahmed, creates new fuels and detonation-based propulsion to propel rockets to hypersonic speeds of Mach 5 and beyond, or five times greater than the speed of sound.
For space missions, this advanced technology will allow spacecraft to travel farther and use less fuel, lightening their load.
The US Department of Defense is investing heavily in the work with a new $1.5 million award at UCF to jump start the technology, and UCF has selected the team for a Jump Start award to modernize its facilities.
“If the technology is successfully advanced, detonation-based hypersonic propulsion could be implemented in human atmospheric and space travel within the next few decades,” Ahmed said.
Self-assembled landing skids
Planetary scientist Phil Metzger of the UCF Florida Space Institute is helping lead a project to create lunar and Mars landing pads with far less energy, fewer materials brought from Earth, and at a lower cost.
The work is important because without a landing pad, jets from a rocket’s descent could blow damaging rocks and soil onto nearby equipment or create a massive crater.
The research is carried out under a subcontract with the aeronautics and aerospace company Cislune under NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program.
Key to the project is UCF’s tentatively patented invention that uses magnetic fields to sort the lunar soil into layers. The process scoops up the soil and then puts it through a separation process, known as beneficiation, sorting the grains particle by particle to retain those that absorb the most microwave energy. These floors are then deposited on the floor and smelted by microwave energy into landing surfaces, a process known as microwave sintering.
Metzger, UCF postdoctoral researcher Dhaka Sapkota, and a team of undergraduate students are currently quantifying the quality of layered grain sorting, and Metzger is preparing studies that model the economic, energy, and development advantages of the technique over d other methods.
“Already, microwave sintering appears to be the most economically practical method for constructing a landing strip on the Moon,” says Metzger. “We hope that with the new technology it will win even more easily and prove to be very affordable for NASA.”
UCF assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering Michael Kinzel helps design NASA’s Dragonfly rotorcraft lander that will explore the environment of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.
The mission is expected to launch in 2027 and reach Titan in the mid-2030s. Scientists hope to learn more about the origin of life by studying Titan’s environment, which contains chemicals similar to what scientists believe the Earth was before the beginning of life.
The project is led by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and Kinzel’s team is focused on continuously improving the design of the craft’s main body, or fuselage, based on feedback from Johns’ team. Hopkins.
To do this, they run advanced computer simulations of the gas flow Dragonfly will experience as it flies on Titan, which helps inform vehicle design. This includes using UCF’s Stokes High Performance Computing Cluster, with help from UCF’s Advanced Research Computing Center Director, Glenn Martin, to define the aerodynamic character of the fuselage in all conditions of flight he will know.
“It’s largely an iterative process of defining the aerodynamic design and then reassessing the structural and thermal loads, while getting new features from the scientists,” says Kinzel. “They tell us something is not working or not meeting the design criteria, or that we need a new sensor, and we iterate and continually refine and improve the design.”
The preliminary design review is expected to be submitted to NASA this summer.
Deployable spacecraft structures
Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Kawai Kwok is leading research to model the performance of ultra-thin composites that can be used to build solar sails and other large deployable structures for spacecraft.
Almost like a tape measure, thin-film composite deployable structures can be rolled up, compacted, and stored for long periods of time until needed for deployment. This makes them perfect for space missions where smaller sizes and weights mean more efficient travel.
Using computer modeling, Kwok’s team presented the first full-scale simulation of deployable composite booms undergoing conditioning, long-term storage, and deployment.
The new simulation capability is able to predict shape distortions of long composite arrows in space, which is a prerequisite for qualifying structures for flight, Kwok says.
“Our NASA collaborators are using our analyzes to inform their ground testing of composite deployable booms, in preparation for the Advanced Composite Solar Sail System, or ACS3, mission slated to launch this year,” Kwok said.
The researcher says the team is now moving into the next phase of the project where they will explore fabricating large structures directly in space using high-temperature thermoplastic composite materials.
Space Technician at UCF
The technology highlighted here is a snapshot of the wide range of space-related technology projects at UCF, including more than a dozen aimed at sending the United States back to the moon, with more projects planned as the push to explore space and exploit its resources continues.
History of researchers
Ahmed joined UCF’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, part of UCF’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, in 2014. He is also a faculty member of the Center for Advanced Turbomachinery and Energy Research and the Florida Center for Advanced Aero-Propulsion. He served over three years as a senior aero/thermo engineer at Pratt & Whitney Military Engines, working on advanced engine programs and technologies. He was also a faculty member at Old Dominion University and Florida State University. At UCF, he leads propulsion and energy research with applications for power generation and gas turbine engines, propulsion jet engines, hypersonics and fire safety, as well as research related to supernova science and control of COVID-19 transmission. He received his doctorate in mechanical engineering from the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is an associate member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a faculty member of the US Air Force Research Laboratory and the Office of Naval Research.
Metzger received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Auburn University and his master’s and doctorate in physics from UCF. Prior to joining UCF in 2014, he worked at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for nearly 30 years.
Kinzel earned his doctorate in aerospace engineering from Pennsylvania State University and joined UCF’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, part of UCF’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, in 2018. He is also a fellow from UCF’s Center for Advanced Turbomachinery and Energy Research.
Kwok received his doctorate in aerospace engineering from the California Institute of Technology. He joined the UCF Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, part of the UCF College of Engineering and Computer Science, in 2017.