Space Dynamics Lab contributes to NASA, Navy technologies
From the The Utah Statesman 01/26/04
Some of the things being developed at the Space Dynamics Lab in North Logan are well ahead of their time.
One might say they're out of this world, or at least, will be out of this world eventually.
Since it was founded in 1959, SDL has played a significant role in advances in NASA and military technologies. More than 400 research payloads from SDL, ranging from rocket-borne sensors to space shuttle experiments have found their way to outer space.
SDL brings millions of research dollars to Utah State University every year and gives hundreds of students experience working in aerospace-related fields, enabling them to get real-life experience.
"I really encourage people that are still in college, if you think you know what you want to do in life, take the time, go out and experience it before you get put in a full-time position," said project specialist Kevin Smith. "You may get there and find out [the job] is not quite what you expected."
Smith found out what his job was going to be like by following his own advice. He started working at SDL as a student and after three years and graduation, he was hired on as a full-time employee.
Smith works with the Thermal and Optical Research (THOR) chamber that is located in the Calibration and Optical Research Laboratory. THOR is a large calibration facility that has a vacuum chamber with cryogenic capabilities that are used to test large instruments intended for space.
"It sounds really simple, but it gets really technical when you get down to the nuts and bolts," Smith said about THOR. "There's a lot to it."
The Volkswagen Beetle-sized chamber can be cooled with liquid nitrogen to simulate space conditions where the temperature can reach about 300 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. Equipment like satellites that are intended for space can be tested with THOR to ensure they are operational when put to actual use.
"It's a lot easier to test it and say, oops, we screwed up and then pull it out and fix the problem than it is to shoot it up [to space] and say oops and be stuck," Smith said. "When we shoot it up into space, we can be sure things will happen correctly."
Before the THOR chamber came to SDL, it had been used for similar testing purposes but also was used in the movies "Apollo 13" and "Aliens," said SDL public relations specialist Trina Paskett. When SDL received the chamber, it had to have somewhere to put the behemoth.
"It's a big tub to stick in your backyard," Smith said. "You have all this piping and you have a lot of safety issues when working with liquid nitrogen, you need to have space to work."
A "Lada" veggies
While the things that are put into THOR are tested for performance and reliability in the vacuum of space, the things that are put into another SDL project called Lada do something a little different: They grow.
Lada, named after the Russian Goddess of Spring, is a self-contained growth chamber used to grow vegetables. One Lada module currently resides at SDL, the other is on board the International Space Station, Paskett said.
The project was engineered almost entirely by students, with between 15 or 20 students working on the project said electrical engineer Shane Topham. The students that worked on Lada came from a number of different backgrounds including electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, software engineering and biology.
The only time someone other than a student worked on Lada, Topham said, was on an earlier version that traveled on the MIR space station: A full-time engineer was hired to supervise the students.
Lada has been used to grow peas, tomatoes, radishes and mizuna for the cosmonauts and astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Paskett said the Lada technology could be instrumental in building a permanent base on the Moon.
In constructing the Lada module, Paskett said, students have been to Wal-Mart to buy parts for the low-cost technology.
The material that grows in Lada grows out of a Kitty Litter-type clay, Topham said. There are plans to send a new root module to the ISS in the next few months so that a new experiment can be started.
Another technology developed at SDL was not intended for use in outer space but rather for military reconnaissance. The lab contributed to work on the U.S. Navy's Tactical Input Segment Screener Processor Element (TIS-SPE). SDL developed hardware and software helping to make date received from TIS-SPE and the Shared Reconnaissance Pod (SHARP) that is mounted on the belly of Navy aircraft.
The SHARP pods contain sophisticated hyperspectral cameras that take large numbers of pictures of an area and download them in real-time to a ground-based computer station, said program manager and computer scientist Darin Partridge.
A hyperspectral camera, Partridge said, can see on many different bands beyond the visual band that the human eye sees. The camera currently being used can see 168 different bands.
Partridge explained the hyperspectral camera as being able to see a camouflage net in a photo, clicking on it using the computer and telling the computer that that is a camouflage net. In the future, the computer will be able to identify all portions of a photograph that contain those same signatures, thus letting the user of the system know where all the camouflage nets are.
"Is it possible that it'll get it wrong? Yeah, but I'll tell you what, it gets it right a lot," Partridge said.
The pods that are mounted on Navy F-18, F-14 and P-3 aircraft capture hundreds of pictures while flying 33,000 feet in the air at 575 miles per hour.
"The faster and lower he flies, the less coverage you're going to get," Partridge said. "The more higher and slow you fly, you can take lots of happy pictures."
Partridge said the camera is smart enough, depending on the altitude and velocity of the aircraft, to know how many pictures it has to take before it swings around to get coverage that it missed in the line of flight.
The technology SDL contributed to the project deals with the compression and de-compression of the images.
During flight, the images are captured by the camera, compressed, and instantly de-compressed and delivered to a computer station aboard an aircraft carrier or on dry land. The technology allows the military to do instant reconnaissance and decide whether to attack an enemy target instantly.
"They used to do reconnaissance completely with real film," Partridge said. "They had to wait for the plane to land then they would get the film and put it on these light tables."
Obviously, Partridge said, reconnaissance is much faster with the new technology.
With the technology, using the navigation date supplied by the aircraft, Partridge said, it is possible to tell distances and dimensions of objects on the ground. Partridge, displaying a fly over of San Francisco, said he is able to tell the height of a tower on the Golden Gate Bridge and the distance between two bases on the baseball field at 3Com Park - it was, in fact, 90 feet.
Getting the parts
With all the precise, intricate technology and material that is needed to build everything SDL sends into space, there come times when a unique part is needed for whatever is being built.
The call for a one-of-a-kind part is something that machine shop supervisor Robert Low is ready to answer.
"We can just about machine anything they can draw," Low said.
The machine shop at SDL is not a production shop, but is made to create unique parts whenever someone at SDL needs them for their projects.
"It's set up where we can work with the designers and the engineers, if they're in a hurry for a part, we can jump right on it and get building it," Low said. "We can give the designers and engineers a very quick turnaround."
Inside the door of the machine shop is a table littered with miscellaneous examples of past work done in the shop. Items on the table include a solid aluminum cube, a honeycomb-shaped apparatus used on satellites and a three-dimensional human face carved into an aluminum block.
Students welcome and wanted
Paskett said there are many jobs available for students at SDL. The internship opportunities available are not limited to engineering and other science-related fields, there are public relations internships available as well. Paskett said she started as an intern at SDL.
Paskett said when jobs and internships become available, they are posted on the Internet at www.sdl.usu.edu.
Smith said the experience of interning at SDL was a good one for him, and it can be the opportunity of a lifetime for a university student.
Smith said, "We're mechanical, we're electrical, you'll learn just basic aerospace technology as well as how it's applied to everyday lives."
By Tyler Riggs, firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos by John Zsiray