Engineering for the Final Frontier

mechanical engineering students preparing to cut a piece of metal for their washing machine project

Three teams of students representing mechanical and electrical engineering spent the past year researching and designing their senior design projects working with NASA through the Texas Space Grant Consortium (TSGC) Design Challenge. Through their extensive work with NASA scientists and astronauts, students were able to create projects for extended space travel and compete with a dozen universities.

The TSGC Design Challenge is a unique academic experience offering undergraduate students the opportunity to propose, design, and create a solution toward solving research objectives of importance to NASA and its mission. The competition has been sponsored by NASA and administered through the TSGC since 2002 and Lamar University has been a frequent competitor in recent years.

The Lamar Array of Microphones for Deciphering Audio (LAMDA) team represented the Phillip M. Drayer Department of Electrical Engineering. The team was tasked to create an acoustic processing microphone array system that not only provides for hands-free voice communication, but also monitors the condition of the equipment operating and integrity of pressurized volumes by scanning for anomalous ultrasonic signatures. The LAMDA team created a non-tracking dual-wideband microphone system proof-of-concept that worked and was capable of detecting anomalies such as a failing pump or a leak detected in the craft.

The Mars Sample Return System (MSRS) Team consisted of a group of five mechanical engineering students tasked with creating a device that could efficiently pick up and contain sample caches found on the surface of Mars. “The hardest part of this concept was creating a design that could withstand the travel and landing on the surface of Mars,” said teammate Travis Miller. “The design would have to obtain samples from a rover, secure them and transport back to the International Space Station for examination.”

mechanical engineering student running tests in the biology labThe final team representing the Department of Mechanical Engineering faced the challenge creating an alternative sanitization method for long-duration space missions. Aptly named, Lamar Launderers, the team quickly realized the difficulties of creating a washing machine for space. “With limited power and water available to astronauts, we created a method for sanitation by using the power of ultraviolet light,” said Chris Stelse. “Currently, astronauts on the space station do not clean their clothing. Clothing is discarded after a couple of uses, and it costs NASA around $5,000 per pound to send something into space. There is a lot of money and manpower to be saved with our design.” The team partnered with Ashwini Kucknoor, Associate Professor of Biology at Lamar University to test the system which successfully destroyed all bacteria in less than 20 minutes.

Each team found success during the TSGC Design Challenge. LAMDA took home second place overall while the MSRS team scored fifth. Lamar Launderers scored fourth place in the oral presentation portion and finished second during the design portion.