From moon dust to meteor bits, NASA studies space rocks in zero-gravity facility built by TI engineers

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From moon dust to meteor bits, geoscientists want to learn more about extraterrestrial dirt for a future human mission to Mars – and applications engineers from our company are making it possible.

Dakotah Karrer, Alexis Crandall and Vince Rodriguez were students at Texas A&M University when they became part of a team charged with helping the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) conduct research related to the mission.

“I’ve always had an interest in space,” Dakotah said. “You have to wonder what’s out there that we don’t know and what’s coming down the road. It’s humbling to be a part of those discoveries.”

Working alongside faculty and a local space commercialization company, the student team designed an electronics package for a new experimental facility that will house research on how the particles interact with spacecraft and spacesuit materials in zero-gravity and allow researchers to control and monitor the experiments from afar.

“When we rendezvous with an asteroid or meteorite, we don’t know how that material is going to behave,” said Matt Leonard, president and CEO of Texas Space Technology Applications and Research. He worked with the student team. “This facility will help researchers learn the gravitational effect of particles on one another so we can better understand how to avoid disrupting them and design something that interacts with them appropriately.”

Hermes – packed with technology from our company, including six TM4C microcontrollers, a BeagleBone Black board and plenty of support chips – will launch on the International Space Station (ISS) this fall and reside there for five years. It will transmit insights back down to Earth that will help NASA crews with future missions to explore the solar system, such as how the ground could shift under the spacecraft and how the space soil could impact vital systems. NASA plans to return humans to the moon and lay the foundation for a human mission to the Martian system in the 2030s.

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 “Scientists have a lot of theories about the way space particles interact, but this will provide evidence to support them,” Alexis said. “As engineers, we hone in on how to design and solve problems. But when I sit back and think about the research and a system we operated being on the ISS – I never thought I’d be working on something so impactful.”

Defying gravity

Finding ways to conduct weightless experiments is challenging. 

“If you’re trying to get microgravity, you have limited options,” said Joe Morgan, a professor of electronic systems engineering technology at Texas A&M who worked with the student team that developed Hermes. “You can drop from a tower and get a couple of seconds or you can ride NASA’s ‘Vomit Comet’ and get maybe 30 seconds of weightlessness. But the ISS provides long-term exposure to microgravity the scientists needed for their research.”

In the fall of 2015, Dakotah and Vince worked with Joe and Matt on a unique tube-like experiment called Strata-1. The experiment launched on the ISS a few months later to conduct a year-long study on the behavior of asteroid material in a zero-gravity environment. Dakotah created the hardware and infrastructure, while Vince developed the software for lights and cameras that would allow scientists to obtain images of the experiment.

When it returned to Earth a year later, Strata-1 was so successful that NASA’s administration asked the team to build a long-term facility that could support a steady rotation of multiple microgravity research projects – but with connectivity that would stream the real-time data. While information from Strata-1 lived on SD cards that had to be retrieved by astronauts every few months, Hermes will be plugged into the ISS communication system so that researchers can obtain the data much faster.

“Strata-1 was hard-coded to do the one function, whereas Hermes is more of a plug-and-play facility where you can change parameters from Earth as you go,” Alexis said. “It’s giving NASA a capability it hasn’t had before.”

A long heritage in space flight

Our company has long played a role in exploration of the final frontier.

TI transistors flew into space on the U.S.’s first satellite, Explorer 1, in January 1958 – just eight months before Jack Kilby invented the integrated circuit. Since then, products from our company have flown on several other space missions, including Apollo 11, which put the first man on the moon. Building on our long heritage in space flight, our company continues to bring new products to the space ecosystem.

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The student team, along with Texas Space Technology Applications and Research and Texas A&M’s Electronic Systems Engineering Technology program, also has a history of involvement with space projects. In addition to Hermes and Strata-1, Vince and Dakotah previously built a space satellite communications system to conduct low-Earth orbit research and Alexis helped with optimizing the electronics and mechanics of a robot designed to roam across Mars – all containing products from our company. Through our University Program, we support engineering educators, researchers and students worldwide and facilitate the inclusion of TI analog and embedded processing technology in the learning experience.

“It’s surreal to work on things that make a difference,” Vince said. “The scientists were so happy and excited to finally have all these pictures from Strata-1. There are a lot of theories they haven't had an ability to test, so it’s great to be a part of helping them come up with the next big discovery.”