As the nation looks on this year to see the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft blast into space on its test flight, UCF faculty, students and alumni will only momentarily pause to watch the historic milestone before returning to what they do best — scientific discovery and developing the next generation of technology that will take us to the moon many more times, and eventually to Mars and beyond.
It’s taken the nation 50 years to get ready to step on the moon again. NASA’s Artemis program expects to land the first woman and person of color on the moon by 2025. Next week’s Artemis I mission will test Orion for the next step in making that deadline. But that’s just the beginning.
“At UCF, we are involved in several lunar missions — missions currently in orbit [around] the moon (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter), missions that will launch and begin orbiting the moon in 2023 (Lunar Trailblazer), and missions that will land on the moon and conduct science from its surface (L-CIRiS and Lunar-VISE),” says Kerri Donaldson Hanna, an assistant professor of physics and planetary science, who is involved in several of NASA’s moon-related missions.
While launching Orion is an exciting moment, UCF is working on missions that will a make a sustainable presence on the moon possible. Lunar Trailblazer will make high spatial and spectral resolution maps of key regions on the lunar surface, including those thought to have water and those that are geologically interesting.
“Using these new high spatial resolution maps, we will be able to identify exciting locations for human and robotic exploration,” Donaldson Hanna says. “Missions like L-CIRiS and Lunar-VISE will teach us how to best explore the lunar surface using astronauts and their hand-held tools and rovers. And all of these will feed into our understanding of the moon and how to sustain human and robotic activity on its surface into the future.”
Here’s just a sampling of how UCF is making an impact on human’s return to the moon and beyond.
There are more than 30 UCF alums connected to Kennedy Space Center who are involved with the Artemis 1 mission. From managing the countdown to safety and wellness operations, these Knights play a crucial role in ensuring a successful and safe launch.
“As the Medical and Environmental Services Division chief, I lead an amazing team of medical and environmental professionals ensuring the protection and wellness of our KSC workforce, workplace, and environment, which are essential to the Artemis (1 and future) missions,” says Tiffaney Miller Alexander ’99 ’05MS ’16PhD, who earned her bachelor’s in electrical engineering and a master’s and doctorate in industrial engineering from UCF. “It is an honor to be a part of the Artemis [program] and play a role in space exploration to the moon, developing a sustainable presence there and then going to Mars.”
NASA Test Director for Exploration Ground Systems Dan Florez ’06, who earned his bachelor’s in aerospace engineering from UCF, credits the university’s dynamic aerospace program, his involvement with a student rocketry club and industry connections he made here for setting him up for success at Kennedy Space Center. He is part of a team responsible for planning, executing and managing the integrated test. His team also oversees the launch countdown process on behalf of the launch director, which includes writing the procedures, developing the schedules and managing operations in the control room.
“We’re launching the most powerful rocket ever launched, one of the tallest launch vehicles ever,” Florez says. “There are a lot of challenges associated with this, including — like the rest of the world — working through a pandemic with people remote and on-site, that we’ve been able to overcome. It’s unbelievable what this team has been able to do in the past few years to get this rocket ready for launch.”
Getting to the Moon
Getting into space and staying safe while doing it is a huge order. While Space X launches have become almost routine on the Space Coast, it’s dangerous work. Perla Latorre-Suarez ’21, who is pursuing a master’s degree in aerospace engineering, and her mentor Professor Seetha Raghavan are working on several techniques to keep spacecraft safe while traveling in space. Latorre-Suarez is researching the use of 3D printed sensors that could be made in space and that would monitor the structural integrity of the components and vehicles used by explorers on other planets.
Latorre-Suarez was recently named an Aviation Week Network 20 Twenties Award Class of 2022 member — an honor that places her among the best aerospace graduate students in the world. In 2021, she was named an X-Force Fellow by the National Security Innovation Network and the U.S. Department of Defense and a NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium Fellow.
Latorre-Suarez recently returned from a summer internship at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia where she worked with NASA scientists to help design ceramic coatings that can protect lunar vehicles from the moon’s dust.
Raghavan’s lab has been producing outstanding space engineers for years through excellence in the classroom, exemplary mentoring, and unique hands-on experiences. That’s why the national group — Women in Aerospace — named her its 2019 Educator of the Year.
Mechanical and Aerospace Associate Professor Kareem Ahmed and his research team in the UCF Propulsion and Energy Research Lab are working on turbulent mixing, which refers to the right recipe that converts a flame into a self-sustaining explosion that uses all of the ingested fuel and air to release a massive amount of energy. The hypersonic work is progressing and may lead to engines and aircraft that would allow people to travel from one coast to another in less than 30 minutes — and potentially reduce space travel times.
Meanwhile, assistant professors of mechanical and aerospace engineering Kawai Kwok and Tarek Elgohary are working on two other projects that aim to keep astronauts and their vehicles moving and safe. Kwok is developing new materialsthat are thinner than a sewing needle and lighter than a feather, but can roll out into massive tools such as solar sails. The material is strong but flexible enough to snap into whatever shape is needed for a space mission. His goal is to give NASA something that is light enough and easy enough to pack on long space missions, making them economical.
Elgohary, who runs the Astrodynamics, Space and Robotics Laboratory, is using machine learning and computational models to help predict space junk movements and ways to avoid it.
The researchers are also studying optimal space-based space surveillance networks that would provide real-time surveillance and tracking information in cislunar space, which can be considered a new highway camera system for the upcoming launch of Gateway — a small, human-tended space station orbiting the moon that part of the Artemis program and will support sustained deep space exploration and research.
Elgohary’s former mechanical engineering student Ryan Ketzner ’22 has won the NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunities (NSTGRO) to study the optimization of space-based space surveillance networks for those applications.
Keeping Space Explorers Healthy
While some faculty and students work on the hardware needed to get us to the moon, others are focused on keeping our space explorers safe.
A team of students advised by UCF NanoScience Technology Center Director and Chemistry Professor Lei Zhai was recognized for an innovative approach to keeping astronauts safe from harmful lunar dust.
The group is focused on a new type of material that could be used to cover the exterior of spacesuits. The material’s nanostructure design is based on how honeybees and other pollinators can manipulate tiny pollen using both microstructures and electric fields. The researchers are also incorporating techniques from the Japanese art of paper-folding, origami, to increase the material’s range of motion and longevity by reducing the stress the material would face through repetitive movements.
At UCF’s Florida Space Institute, Esther Beltran is collaborating with NASA-SSERVI on a program that aims to develop novel composites so they can be integrated into effective radiation shielding to minimize the effects on astronauts. Beltran is an expert on humans living and working in extreme environments and is passionate about exploring the solar system.
But shielding astronauts isn’t enough. At the College of Medicine, doctors are working with commercial space companies to study the impacts of space on the human body. UCF Health ophthalmologist Mehul Patel and doctors Joyce Paulson and Ali Rizvi are working with medical groups in Israel to study the impact of space travel on the eyes, brain, and blood.
Once We Get There
While some professors and students work on getting us to the moon and beyond, others are working on the problems we’ll face once we get there.
UCF planetary scientists Donaldson Hanna and Adrienne Dove are leading a $35 million science mission (Lunar Vulkan Imaging and Spectroscopy Explorer also known as Lunar-VISE) that will land a spacecraft on a part of the moon never visited before — the Gruithuisen Domes. The domes are composed of rocks similar to those found making up Earth’s volcanoes, but on Earth these types of volcanoes need plate tectonics and water to form (two things that don’t exist on the Moon). The duo plan to collect data that will help solve the mystery on how the volcanic domes formed and why.
Dove, who is an expert in dust and its behavior in space, will also be conducting additional research to see how it behaves on this part of the moon, which appears to have a different consistency than the part of the moon visited by the Apollo astronauts.
Getting to the moon requires engaging our years of space flight engineering experience but making sure we take off and land safely from there will take new techniques still being developed.
To do this, we’ll need to build safe and cost-effective lunar landing pads for spacecraft. These will be critical as these pads will have to stop lunar dust and particles from sandblasting everything around them at more than 10,000 miles per hour as a rocket takes off or lands.
That’s why UCF planetary scientists Phil Metzger ’00MS ’05PhD and Dhaka Sapkota are hard at work developing methods for landing pads that are safe and cost-effective to build in space, since carrying heavy building materials and equipment to the moon quickly becomes cost prohibitive.
They’ve developed a magnetic sorting technology, that coupled with a method known as sintering that uses microwaves to melt lunar soil, is economical and could one day be used on the moon.
Workforce of Tomorrow
All the research and technology we develop will mean nothing if the workforce to continue and advance it isn’t ready. Even in this area, UCF is stepping up and leading the way.
One way the university is doing this is through NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project Space Technology Artemis Research, or M-STAR, program. The initiative will prepare students to be the workforce of tomorrow and develop the technology needed to return to the moon.
Faculty who are experts in engineering, physics and medicine will work together to create a suite of scientific and educational efforts to support the technology capabilities in the areas of robotics, materials for extreme environments, and entry, descent, and landing technologies.
UCF is one of seven universities selected for the prestigious award.
As America’s Space University, there are many more projects at UCF supporting the U.S. space program, return to the moon, and interplanetary exploration, in addition to the ones mentioned here.
These stories of innovative people and projects will continue to be told, and the research and academics behind them will offer new ways for students and the community to become involved in appreciating space and supporting this new chapter in the nation’s space history.
“UCF was founded as the university for the Space Coast, … Artemis is just the next step on that adventure,” says Associate Professor of History Amy Foster.