August 7, 2023

group photo of NASA Glenn Spacecraft Design teamsTwo teams of aerospace engineering seniors made history this year by winning two NASA design competitions. Both teams participated in the annual NASA Glenn Research Center University Student Design Challenge, which invites undergraduate students to become involved in research and technology development. Each year the center presents several aeronautic- and space-themed projects that encourage students to develop unique solutions to specific NASA mission problems. The winning teams traveled to NASA Glenn this summer to tour facilities and present their projects to Center Director Dr. James A. Kenyon.

Learn more about the two winning teams and their solutions to the challenges they selected:

Team Thundercats

Project: Visibility Prediction of Foggy Environments Using Sensor Fusion and Deep Neural Networks
Team Members: Andy Hsu, Sriram Bommakanti, Benjamin Dunbar, Andy Pottinger
Team Advisors: Adam Nokes, Lori Magruder, Jeffrey Perry

The Challenge

To develop machine learning (ML) for big data sets as they relate to sensor data for aerospace applications where clear visibility is an issue, such as self-driving cars driving through fog, airplanes flying through fog, Earth observing satellites obstructed by clouds, etc.

Students used data from Sandia National Lab’s artificial fog chamber where NASA Glenn scientists are working on the project, to develop their algorithms. Five measurement instruments are placed in the chamber, which is about as long as a bowling alley, and the room is filled with fog until it dissipates. Sensors include visible and infrared cameras, a LiDar camera, transmissometer and a laser diffraction instrument to quantify the intensity of the fog. Students also worked with ASE/EM associate professor and LiDar expert, Lori Magruder. Using this combined data from the experiment, students designed a neural network to quantify the intensity of the fog. The network will provide a more accurate method of calculating visibility, to enhance sensor data fusion in cloudy and foggy weather.  

Team Perspective

We chose this challenge not because it was easy, but because it was hard. Major hurdles were understanding the technical aspects, such as machine learning and signal processing. Over multiple meetings with Dr. Lori Magruder of UT’s Center for Space Research, we were able to synthesize the direction of our project. Parsing through the data and performing feature extraction took up the bulk of the time, then we were finally able to work on the machine learning aspect. A couple of days later, and boom, we had a finished neural network! Watch the full video of Team Thundercat’s experience:

My goal when advising senior capstone design projects is to present opportunities to students that are relevant to careers in industry, academia and government in ways that excite both the students and the people across the table from them in a job interview.

– Adam Nokes, ASE/EM Lecturer, Senior Capstone Spacecraft Mission/Design

Nuclear Electric Closed System Engine (NECSE) Team

Project: Closed Brayton Generator Cycle for the Lunar Surface
Team Members: Asher C. Cura-Portillo, Conner D. Douthit, Robin E. Hormann, Russ Z. Lambert, Stephanie N. Gonzalez
Team Advisors: Adam Nokes, Raghav Mahalingam, Tim Allison

The Challenge

To design a greater than 50% efficient, and greater than 6 kw/kg specific power nuclear electric propulsion system, leveraging NASA technology.

The NECSE team developed a nuclear-thermal powered electric propulsion system for space vehicles to allow for longer periods of travel – months to possibly even years – which could help advance space exploration. This type of efficient high-power energy could aid in establishing a long-term presence on the Moon, traveling to deep space, and even getting humans to Mars. Students designed the entire system, which includes several subsystems: a turbo alternator compressor, hot side heat exchanger, heat rejection heat exchanger, auxiliary cooler, recuperator, controller, and power processing unit.

Team Perspective

Our goal was to design a feasible power operations system that uses recent technological developments to maximize efficiency of the cycle. This required diving into component design and optimizing each subsystem. We’re grateful for the chance this design challenge has given us to grow as engineers, which allowed us to take on a problem that seemed beyond our capabilities and to meet the difficulties head on. Watch the team’s video to learn about each of these subsystems: 

Support Senior Capstone Design Projects

Senior Capstone Design courses are required for all aerospace engineering (ASE) and computational engineering (COE) seniors. Students work in teams to develop realistic system concepts and present proposed system capabilities to meet industry objectives and requirements in aircraft design, spacecraft/mission design and computational engineering. These courses help students transition to a real-world setting, where they solve project-based engineering problems with an emphasis on teamwork and communication. 

Sponsoring a Senior Capstone Design project provides the opportunity to mentor and build relationships with students, help off-set project costs, and gain new insights from students as they prepare for their engineering careers. Students have opportunities to showcase their projects at the annual ASE/EM Academy of Distinguished Alumni banquet, national competitions, and conferences. For more information about sponsoring a team, contact Carolyn Brunson.