UTEP Gaining Visibility in Next-Generation Space Research

By Nadia M. Whitehead

UTEP News Service

This week, members of The University of Texas at El Paso’s Center for Space Exploration Technology Research (cSETR) are attending the 29th National Space Symposium, a premier gathering of the global space-research community.

It is the first time the University has ever attended.

“Some of our research here today is directly applicable to space exploration and next-generation space,” said Nathaniel Robinson, associate director of cSETR, who believes UTEP’s reputation in aerospace is steadily growing.Doctoral student Armando Delgado (right) is focusing his research on the construction of bricks using moon dust. He and a team of UTEP researchers successfully tested their mixture in a reduced-gravity aircraft last year. Doctoral student Armando Delgado (right) is focusing his research on the construction of bricks using moon dust. He and a team of UTEP researchers successfully tested their mixture in a reduced-gravity aircraft last year.

Take doctoral student Adrian Trejo, who will be attending the symposium and is currently researching liquid methane, a new form of green fuel that could power space shuttles. Liquid methane is abundant throughout the solar system and could potentially be acquired via “in-situ” resource utilization – the use of materials available around you: in this case, the Martian atmosphere.

“Instead of carrying liquid methane all the way from Earth, which is a lot of weight, we could synthesize it from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere,” said Trejo, who is studying environmental science and engineering. In-situ extraction would allow for refueling on the moon or another planet.  

The current rocket fuel of choice – liquid hydrogen – burns at a whopping 5,500 degrees Fahrenheit when ignited with liquid oxygen.

“The problem with liquid hydrogen is that it’s initially extremely cold, and is notorious for its tendency to leak, so cooling and storage becomes an issue. That increases the system complexity and weight,” said Trejo, who is experimenting and collecting data on the heat transfer characteristics of liquid methane.

Liquid methane is not only greener than liquid hydrogen, but also more energy dense – meaning it can burn longer. In addition, there is not as great a disparity in temperature between liquid methane and liquid oxygen, so storage characteristics do not vary as much.

Armando Delgado, another doctoral student, is focusing his research on the construction of bricks using moon dust.

“Bricks can be used for a launch pad, human shelter, roads, rover storage, and more on the moon,” said Delgado, who is also studying environmental science and engineering. “Some people have proposed to just take the bricks there from Earth, but that would be too expensive because of the (weight of the) payload.”

Delgado and several other UTEP student researchers, under the supervision of assistant professor of mechanical engineering Evgeny Shafirovich, Ph.D., have proven that by mixing magnesium with lunar regolith – the layer of loose dust, sand and rock covering the moon – and combusting the two, bricks can be formed.

“We’ve shown that you need a minimum of 10 percent magnesium additive to make a useful brick,” he said.

In addition, the team successfully tested their mixture in a reduced-gravity aircraft last year through an opportunity offered through NASA’s Microgravity University.

A team of undergraduate researchers, working on the creation of bricks from soil on Mars, plans to test their mixture in the same microgravity setting this July.  

“We have already presented our research at different conferences,” Delgado said. “And the feedback has been very positive. To the best of our knowledge, this is the most feasible way to make bricks utilizing the resources on the moon.”

Originally Shafirovich’s idea, Delgado also suggested that instead of taking the magnesium from Earth to the moon, one could harvest the element by recycling a satellite in orbit. Satellites are partially made up of magnesium.

These sorts of next-generation space research projects will be on display at the symposium. Big companies and institutions such as SpaceX, Raytheon and Boeing will learn what UTEP’s cSETR is up to.

“This is a great opportunity for us to network with other companies, and potentially generate contracts, and get grants to tackle more space research together,” Robinson said. “We also hope this will give our students exposure so that more aerospace companies will come to UTEP when they’re hiring.”

Trejo agreed, and is looking forward to connecting with SpaceX while there, and perhaps, generating some interest to help land himself a job there one day.