NASA Selects 14 Early Stage Innovations from US Universities for R&D

Each year NASA selects and funds a number of university researchers to mature game-changing space technologies. The multi-year research and development projects could help develop super-cold space refrigerators and innovate ways to deal with hazardous lunar dust, among other objectives.

Edgar Mitchell moves across the lunar surface as he looks over a traverse map during exploration of Fra Mauro. Lunar dust can be seen clinging to the boots and legs of the space suit.
Credits: NASA/Alan Shepard

In late 2020, NASA selected 14 university-led research proposals to study early-stage technologies relevant to these topics. Each selection will receive up to $650,000 in grants from NASA’s Space Technology Research Grants program over up to three years, giving the university teams the time and resources to iterate multiple designs and solutions.

“U.S. universities are hubs for research and development,” said Walt Engelund, deputy associate administrator for programs within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington. “NASA relies on this community to innovate technologies and offer perspective on systems the agency knows it will need for future missions.”

Selected under NASA’s Early Stage Innovation 2020 solicitation, the projects address six topic areas. The principal investigators, universities, and research projects, by topic, are:

Advanced High-Capacity Cryogenic Refrigeration Components 
Cryogenic, or very low temperature, refrigeration technologies will play an important role in future NASA missions, including for in-situ resource utilization and long-term storage of propellants. Advancements in super-cold refrigeration technologies are needed to address the challenges associated with sending such systems into space.

  • John Brisson 
    Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge 
    Brisson will use additive technologies to develop and build pistons for use in the space based cryogenic refrigeration systems, as well as a control algorithm for an expander that utilizes the pistons.
     
  • Seyed Ghiaasiaan 
    Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta 
    Ghiaasiaan will use computational fluid dynamics and micro-manufacturing techniques to design and fabricate high-capacity and highly efficient heat exchangers for future long-duration space missions.
     
  • Krishna Kota
    New Mexico State University in Las Cruces 
    Kota will design and optimize wavy channels for compact, cryogenic heat exchangers and build them using additive manufacturing. The project aims to use them to reduce the size and enhance the performance of thermal management systems and heat exchangers for spacecraft electronics, satellites, data centers, automobiles, and energy systems.

Modeling Lunar Dust Behavior and Mitigation Techniques 
This topic seeks to advance modeling and simulation capabilities for lunar dust behavior, its effects on space mission environments, and how to mitigate issues it can cause.

  • Mihaly Horanyi 
    University of Colorado Boulder 
    Horanyi will investigate lunar dust structure, charging, and mobilization by developing numerical models that couple the microphysics of grain-scaled processes with the near-surface plasma environment.
     
  • Rui Ni
    Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore 
    Ni will develop a multi-scale, multi-physics framework to model lunar dust characteristics ranging from microscale physics to macroscale transport in a vacuum environment and conditions inside spacecraft. The model will help evaluate lunar dust transport mechanisms and mitigation strategies for lunar missions.

Micromachining Optical Structures for Remote Sensing Applications 
This topic seeks to fabricate and produce metamaterials – an engineered material made from two different materials – to build waveguides and other optical components to enable more compact and less expensive infrared remote sensing instruments.

  • Jonathan Fan 
    Stanford University in Stanford, California 
    Fan will design, fabricate, and characterize large area, broadband metalenses for use in space-based large aperture mid-infrared optics.
     
  • Alan Wang 
    Oregon State University in Corvallis 
    Wang will explore electrically tunable optical filters and scalable fabrication for use in future hyperspectral imaging and infrared spectroscopy applications.

Modeling and Model Validation of Parachute Dynamics During Inflation and Descent 
Current methods for modeling parachutes are not very precise and parachute designs require extensive testing and validation before they can be safely used in a NASA mission. The efforts selected under this topic will advance the state-of-the-art capabilities for fluid structure interaction simulations to study parachute inflation and descent.

  • Alireza Amirkhizi 
    University of Massachusetts Lowell 
    Amirkhizi plans to calibrate structural models of parachute components, including canopy fabric and suspension-line cords, in application-relevant conditions (inflation and descent), to enable advances in fluid-structure interaction simulations for spacecraft structures and decelerator systems.
     
  • Charbel Farhat 
    Stanford University
    Farhat will develop a model of woven fabrics during atmospheric entry to enable a computational framework to capture the nonlinear dynamics of these systems and accelerate the simulation of all types of nonlinear aeroelastic phenomena essential to many NASA programs.
     
  • Francesco Panerai 
    University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign 
    Panerai will develop experiments that enable tailored validation of fluid-structure interaction models, while improving the understanding of inflation dynamics, multi-body dynamics, and capsule wake/parachute interactions during deployment and descent.

Methodologies for Assessing Space Technology Portfolio Investments 
Technology drives exploration. New methods for assessing the value of technology investments could help NASA develop a more strategic portfolio.

  • Olivier de Weck 
    Massachusetts Institute of Technology 
    A methodology for valuating and constructing a space technology portfolio that enables prioritization of mission-specific and general technology investments will be developed.

Advancement of Additive Manufacturing Techniques for High Temperature Materials 
Projects under this topic aim to advance additive manufacturing processing techniques and improve the properties of high-temperature metals used in 3D printing.

  • Raymundo Arroyave 
    Texas A&M University in College Station 
    Arroyave will combine computational alloy design frameworks with novel prototyping technologies to identify compositions that are suitable for high temperature aerospace applications as well as suitable feedstock for additive manufacturing.
     
  • Bryan Webler 
    Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh 
    Webler proposes to use computational thermodynamics calculations, machine-learning regression models, and heat transfer calculations to develop a new refractory alloy with excellent properties at extremely high temperatures that can be produced by additive manufacturing methods.
     
  • Alan Weimer 
    University of Colorado Boulder 
    Weimer will demonstrate an advanced additive manufacturing method to improve the properties of high temperature tungsten and tungsten-alloys as extreme-temperature materials. If successful, the method could be applied to nuclear thermal propulsion fuel elements, shielding materials for solar probes, and other applications.

The Space Technology Research Grants program is funded by STMD, which supports and develops transformative space technologies to enable future missions. As NASA embarks on its next era of exploration with the Artemis program, STMD is focused on advancing technologies, developing new systems, and testing capabilities at the Moon that will be critical for crewed missions to Mars.

For more information about NASA’s Space Technology Research Grants program, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/strg

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