Thayer students’ project takes flight
By James Peng, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, January 7, 2011
Using materials such as an air conditioner, cooling pipes and a block of graphite, a team of students from the Thayer School of Engineering is working to design a dehumidifying system for future manned spacecrafts. The student-led initiative — known as the Microgravity University program and sponsored by NASA’s Glenn Research Center — will provide the group with the opportunity to fly with and test its project in an aircraft that simulates the reduced gravity of space, according to the program’s website.
The team received notification of its selection by NASA in early December, according to the Microgravity University’s website.
“[The program] is extraordinarily competitive and very prestigious,” Douglas Van Citters, an engineering professor and the group’s advisor, said. “This is the first team from my class that’s ever made it or even tried out.”
Sean Currey ’11, Broghan Cully ’11, Max Fagin Th’11 and Michael Kellar Th’11 are developing the dehumidifier — is also known as a porous media condensing heat exchanger — for their Engineering Design Methodology class. Julianna Scheiman ’11 and William Voigt ’13, a participant in the Colby College dual degree program, also contributed to the project.
The team, named Tefnut after the Egyptian goddess of moisture, will travel to Houston’s Johnson Space Center in early June. There the students will board the craft to test the dehumidifier in an aircraft that will fly in parabolic maneuvers over the Gulf of Mexico.
“We’ve completed most of our initial research and design,” Currey said. “This term we will start on a new system that we can fly on the microgravity aircraft in June.”
The students were accepted into the program after an extensive proposal process, which required them to provide an analysis of the problem they aimed to solve, their experimental design and any potential safety concerns. Students sent the final proposal — over 50 pages long — to NASA in October, Currey said.
“Our biggest constraint in writing the proposal was that the project was still in its early research stage at that point,” Cully said. “We had to convince NASA that we would in fact have a prototype that could be tested in June.”
Maintaining a constant level of humidity is important in a spacecraft because it prevents equipment damage and reduces discomfort, according to the project abstract.
The prototype aims to replace current dehumidifying systems, which are too large and complex for orbit.
“[Current dehumidifiers] would be OK for a spacecraft orbiting around the earth but not for spacecrafts on a two-year mission to Mars,” Currey said.
The porous media condensing heat exchanger works by first absorbing the moisture using porous graphite and then extracting the water from the graphite using pipes, according to Currey.
The group has worked closely with NASA researcher Mohammed Hasan of the Glenn Research Center, according to Currey. Hasan performed extensive initial research on condensing heat exchanger designs, but the team plans on modifying Hasan’s work so that the design can be applied to spacecraft, Currey said.
Many of the group members said they are most excited about flying in the aircraft.
“Microgravity flights are something I’ve dreamt about this since I was a kid,” Kellar said. “I mean, who doesn’t dream of being able to float?”
The team’s anticipated flight week is June 2-June11, according to the NASA website.