By Lily Williams
A combined team of undergraduates at Northwestern University and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign are working together to build a satellite and instruments to test the fabrication of building materials in space.
The NASA mission is due to launch into orbit in the summer of 2018. It has two parts: a box-like satellite called a CubeSat (UIUC’s job) and a payload of instruments (NU’s job at the SpaceICE lab) to test freeze-casting . The instrumentation will freeze suspensions and study the corrugated structures of materials left behind in the freezing and thawing process. The undergraduate-only collaboration will determine if freeze-casting could be a viable mechanism for fabricating many different materials, from fuel cells to cocoa tablets, both on Earth and eventually on other planets.
The work is complex, rigorous and constantly evolving, especially because, as students graduate, they need to be replaced and re-trained from the ground up. Each university team not only has to design and test their own product, but also make sure that CubeSat and the SpaceICE payload work together.
Below are some photos that attempt to chronicle the day-to-day tasks of both teams, at NU and UIUC, where the satellite makers need to configure their spacecraft for the instrumentation.
Members of the Northwestern University SpaceICE lab present a preliminary design for their freeze-casting instrumentation via conference call with NASA. Materials science Professor David Dunand, (right) directs the SpaceICE lab.
Krysti Scotti solders a new computer for taking temperature readings on suspension samples. The lab mixes suspensions of microscopic particles and water to freeze and thaw. As they freeze the suspensions, they take temperature readings to see how the suspension structures change with the corresponding colder temperatures.
Krysti Scotti teaches Jonathan Young, a SpaceICE undergrad, how to use their multiple hand-built computers for taking temperature readings of suspensions.
Notes and instructions for making the suspension the students will test in freeze-casting. The students have to make their own suspension for testing. It took months to even decide what kind of particles would compose the best kind of suspension for freeze-casting in space. They decided on silver-coated glass particles because they don’t coagulate and they can also remain in suspension for long periods of time without settling out of the suspension.
The circuit board SpaceICE uses is composed of multiple computation systems. The team can order parts of it online, but they ultimately have to manually assemble the boards in a way that will allow them to conduct their own specific experiments.
The spinning fan will take a few hours to freeze the suspension above it in the white container. SpaceICE designed and built this fan instrument.
As part of his senior design project, Jonathan Young sets up the computer program that he will use to test the nucleation point of a suspension he has made. That means the exact moment the suspension begins to freeze.
Three members of the SpaceICE team from left to right: Jessica Li, Yingda Hu and Andy McIntosh. The three have come together for an electronics meeting to discuss some new parts they need to order for the testing instrumentation.
Yingda Hu sketches out a simplified design flow for the electronics of the freeze-casting payload during an electronics meeting. In addition to the programming and electronics team, SpaceICE also has science and engineering teams. Each meet weekly.
UIUC’s clean room. UIUC’s role in the NASA-funded mission is to design CubeSat, the bread box-sized satellite that will house NU’s freeze-casting payload from the SpaceICE lab. The plastic curtains prevent excess dust or potentially harmful debris from contaminating their satellite parts. Students are required to dress in lab coats and gloves before entering the clean room to work on the CubeSat.
Inside UIUC’s clean room, the CubeSat and it’s myriad parts await assembly and testing.
UIUC equipment for designing and conducting experiments. Undergraduates with appropriate training and knowledge will use liquid nitrogen, extremely hot ovens and intense vacuums to study the potential effects of space on their satellite designs.
Every surface of the UIUC lab is covered in instrumentation as CubeSat construction moves forward. Some of this instrumentation is relevant to the project, other instrumentation is there just to satisfy the engineer’c constant curiosity.
A UIUC workstation where undergraduates and graduates can come in to plan and design the CubeSats. UIUC began working on CubeSats in 2001, and students are currently working on five different CubeSat projects. Much of the actual construction work is done in the clean room.
Students at UIUC devised this chamber for testing all of their satellites in zero gravity. The CubeSats will go inside of the cage-like structure, which will detect signals bounced off the instrumentation inside and translate it into data the researchers can interpret.
A list of tasks the UIUC lab teams plan on completing before launch. Each lab has a different mechanism for recording and dividing duties. With so many students coming and going, a white board is a logical way to keep everyone updated.
UIUC students designed and constructed this device for building their own machinery. It could save them time rather than having to outsource production of all of their designs.
Despite designing highly sophisticated instrumentation, UIUC students still rely on post-it notes for reminding others not to interfere with sensitive equipment.
Photo at top: Northwestern materials science and engineering senior Jonathan Young spoons his suspension into the collection vestibule of the freezing instrument SpaceICE has specially designed for their research. (Lily Williams/MEDILL)