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Interdisciplinary student team creates out-of-this-world tool for NASA

A team of interdisciplinary students from The Ohio State University has developed a new tool that could help NASA astronauts on future exploration missions.Ohio State Micro-g NExT team stands in front of NBL testing poolBuckeyes of the Galaxy with their camera mount device at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Lab. From left, Kelly DeRees, Jason Noe, Jordan Lombardo, Jahnavi Murali and Clark Van Lieshout (not pictured: Sarthak Shah). Photo courtesy of NASA.

Buckeyes of the Galaxy was one of just 24 teams selected from across the U.S. to participate in a simulated microgravity challenge at NASA’s Johnson Space Center Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) in Houston, Texas on May 24. As part of the Micro-g Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams (Micro-g NExT) program, undergraduate students design, build and test a tool or device that addresses a current space exploration need.

The Buckeyes chose to develop a spacewalk camera mount, one of three design challenge options. Spacewalks currently are viewed through one camera mounted on the astronauts’ suits, said team member and chemical engineering major Jahnavi Murali. To acquire an additional view, NASA requested designs for a separate camera that astronauts can carry with them and attach to various locations on the International Space Station (ISS).

After their initial proposal was selected, the Ohio State team spent two semesters advancing their concept. There were numerous constraints to consider, one of which was the device had to be easily maneuvered by an astronaut wearing large, ski-like gloves with a limited range of motion. NASA also had safety requirements and restrictions on size and materials that would affect the design. The team was able to print most of their materials at Ohio State’s Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence, and test their device at the Recreation and Physical Activity Center.

Ohio State's Mico-g team preps NASA divers before testing in poolThe team briefs the divers prior to their first test. Photo courtesy of NASA.In May, they traveled to Houston to witness their tool being used in the NBL’s 6.2 million gallon indoor pool, which simulates an asteroid’s surface. For the young space enthusiasts, the experience was out-of-this-world.

“It was insanely amazing,” said Murali, who participated on Ohio State’s first Micro-g team in 2017 with fellow teammate Kelly DeRees, materials science and engineering. The team also includes Jason Noe and Jordan Lombardo, aerospace engineering; Clark Van Lieshout, astronomy and astrophysics; and Sarthak Shah, neuroscience. Neil Armstrong Chair in Aerospace Policy John Horack served as their faculty advisor.

Not only was the Buckeyes’ device tested by NASA divers, it also was selected for an additional test by an astronaut in full spacewalk gear—one of just two devices to receive such distinction this year.

“I will never forget the feeling that I had when I walked into that control room and sat down, and on the monitor in front of me there’s an astronaut suited up holding our tool. It was the best feeling in the world,” said Murali.

Both tests were successful and the team received high praise from their NASA crew, particularly on the ergonomics of the device, which was a priority during the design phase.

Micro-g team sits in the control roomThe team watches their device being tested from the NBL control room. Photo courtesy of NASA.“One thing I love about our team is that everyone is a different discipline. And that’s really cool because it means people come with different perspectives,” said Murali. “You wouldn’t necessarily expect someone like me as a chemical engineer to be part of what looks like a mechanical device, but there are applications, things I can learn and ways I can contribute.”

The Buckeyes of the Galaxy will incorporate the feedback they received into a final proposal they submit in late June. All Micro-g NExT tested devices are archived in a NASA database that is accessed by engineers developing spacewalk tools for future missions, which means the Ohio State camera mount could influence the design of a new space tool.

Along with gaining experience in mechanical design, experimental testing and proposal writing, another important component of the Micro-g program is community outreach. The Buckeyes conducted several STEM outreach activities at The Bridge, a local community center in Columbus dedicated to serving the needs of children of Somali immigrants.

Lombardo said the real world experience he gained from the Micro-g program has been invaluable.

“I learned things I could never learn in a classroom and made lasting connections with industry professionals and students from around the country who share my passion,” he said.

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications | biss.11@osu.edu