Two students from the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics are among the 54 recipients of the 2016 NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship (NSTRF). The highly competitive grant is available to graduate students who are U.S. citizens and permanent residents attending accredited U.S. universities.

Students submit a research proposal and NASA selects the recipients from the pool of applicants. The mission of the grant is to sponsor students “who show significant potential to contribute to NASA’s goal of creating innovative new space technologies for our Nation’s science, exploration and economic future.”

The grant covers different aspects of funding including the recipient’s stipend for their research, a tuition waiver and costs for attending conferences to present their research. The grant is good for up to four years, so long as NASA is satisfied with the student’s progress.  

Aerospace engineering graduate students Yasvanth Poondla and Patrick Wittick are among the recipients of this year’s fellowship.

Yasvanth Poondla

Yasvanth Poondla is pursuing a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering and is working on improving an existing Boltzmann equation solver that uses quasi-particles – virtual molecules traveling at discrete velocities. Currently, the method can handle fluids with multiple molecular species, but cannot model chemical reactions between these species.  He is proposing to improve the quasi-particle method by adding chemistry as well as electric and magnetic fields. Adding electricity and magnetism into the model would be a “relatively novel thing,” he said. Making these changes would allow the method to simulate conditions experienced by vehicles during atmospheric reentry.

“This is important because it gives us a tool free of limitations of previous computational techniques to understand what is going on at those conditions,” Poondla said. “This isn’t useful just for conditions on Earth. It’s possible, hopefully, to apply this to (re)entry to any planet.”

Professor David Goldstein and Professor Philip Varghese are Poondla’s co-advisors, and his research collaborator will be Derek Liechty with NASA’s Langley Research Center.

Patrick WittickPatrick Wittick is pursuing a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering and is focusing on finding a fast and accurate method to calculate the gravitational force of small celestial bodies like asteroids and comets. Because small celestial bodies are hardly ever perfect spheres, Wittick said, it takes more computational power to calculate the gravitational force. In order for the spacecraft to explore or be around these small celestial bodies, it is important to know what the gravity in that region will do to the spacecraft, he said.

“Most current methods are not super accurate as they do that, or they take a lot of time and you have to do them on a big giant ground computer,” he said. “We’re going to develop our own method, probably some sort of hybrid of current methods.”

Professor Ryan Russell is his faculty advisor, and his research collaborator will be Kenneth Getzandanner with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.