URI Engineering Students Work with NASA on Nuclear Thermal Propulsion for Human Mission to Mars | Where is
KINGSTON — Thirteen University of Rhode Island mechanical engineering students are working with NASA and other top universities on a project that could cut the travel time of a human mission to Mars in half.
The project involves nuclear thermal propulsion, which scientists and engineers say can get astronauts to Mars faster and safer than with current chemical propulsion and technology. Students are enrolled in Professor Bahram Nassersharif’s graduate mechanical engineering class, who spends a year working on industry problems or projects and then provides design and/or production recommendations, prototypes and more .
When Nassersharif, design director, professor and director of the nuclear engineering program, first set up the project, he envisioned a team of four students.
“I pitched the project at the start of class in September and there was so much interest that I decided to create three separate teams,” Nassersharif said. “From the very beginning, they have been very dedicated to the project. The three teams work well together and with their colleagues from other university teams. I am very impressed with their communication and organizational skills.
According to Nassersharif, the project involves a proposed nuclear thermal propulsion system with 19 fuel tubes partially filled with uranium metal. Uranium melts at a temperature of 2070 degrees Fahrenheit. The job of the URI students is to spin the fuel tubes fast enough to spin the liquid uranium metal at start-up, for most of the trip, and at the end so that the liquid uranium remains attached to the walls. tubes and not escape.
In other words, students work on a system that generates centrifugal force. To produce the necessary spin, the hydrogen would pass through the walls of the rocket, cooling the fuel tubes. And as the hydrogen heats up, it becomes the propellant that exits the rocket’s nozzle and sends the spacecraft on its way.
Advantages of nuclear thermal propulsion
So what are the advantages of nuclear thermal propulsion over the current and better chemical rockets in use today?
It requires significantly less fuel and therefore less weight to carry during the journey, and it can achieve up to 50% reduction in journey time compared to chemical propulsion.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania State University College of Engineering, University of Michigan College of Engineering, and University of Alabama, Huntsville are the other academic collaborators.
URI students focus on three parts of the project, all of which are integrated with the work of other collaborators.
Team 1 works on starting the rocket, which means melting down the uranium fuel. But before that happens, the students will have to spin the fuel tubes, Nassersharif said. He said potential solutions could include an electric motor or using hydrogen in a turbine to spin the tubes. The goal is to spin the tubes at 200 rpm initially.
Team 2 is working on the normal operation of the tubes during flight, including increasing and decreasing speeds. The goal is to spin the tubes synchronously, from around 250 revolutions per minute up to several thousand per minute.
Team 3 is developing a plastic 3D desktop model of the system so that project teams can examine the engine assembly and its geometry to see how everything fits together.
URI teams made two in-class presentations in the fall semester and will present two major design presentations in the spring semester, “a build test report” and a final design showcase, which will include a working model. Michael Houts, head of nuclear research at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, took part in Zoom’s fall presentations.
“URI students are conducting important research related to Centrifugal Nuclear Thermal Rocket (CNTR), and we are extremely pleased to have them as part of the research team,” Houts said recently. “Their work is excellent, and they continue to make significant contributions to the advancement of CNTR’s high-performance space propulsion concept.”
Student Jacob Murphy, from Coventry, said: ‘His team’s aim is to develop, by the end of the spring semester, a prototype 3D model of the engine. Our whole group is focused only on the mechanical part of the rocket.
“Basically, a nuclear reaction heats uranium, which then heats hydrogen, which then becomes the rocket propellant,” said Connor Venagro, also a member of Cranston’s 3D modeling team.
The seeds of the project
The seeds for the project were sown when Nassersharif met NASA’s Houts, the head of nuclear research at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, at an American Nuclear Society conference. One of Nassersharif’s master’s students, Miguel Lopez, discussed the project with the professor and Houts, and then they decided to develop a proposal. It was submitted to NASA’s Rhode Island Space Grant Consortium at Brown University, which funded the project. Houts is NASA’s mentor for URI students.
“One of the big advantages of this project is that our students meet (remotely) students from other schools and they talk about their projects, which are different from URIs. But being able to share ideas helps connect all students to the far-reaching work being done on this,” Nassersharif said.
The buzz among students in the classroom at URI’s Fascitelli Center for Advanced Engineering was palpable one afternoon as they discussed the project and what it means to them.
“Part of the problem with a chemical rocket (traditional rocket) is how long it would take to propel it to Mars,” said Marco DeFruscio, a mechanical engineering student from Providence. “Being able to get to Mars efficiently is the goal of this project. There’s a lot of competition to prove we can get humans to Mars. »
In the 1960s, NASA worked on nuclear propulsion for its rockets, but fears of placing astronauts next to a nuclear fuel source and public controversies surrounding nuclear power over the decades have made it difficult pursuing that option, according to Zachary Hermanson of Woonsocket. .
“But this technology is very similar to what we already use in our submarines and surface ships,” Hermanson said.
“All of us on team one have worked in the nuclear submarine business,” said Rachael Bjorn of North Kingstown, another member of team one.
Nassersharif added that some of the 13 students have taken at least one of the 10 nuclear engineering courses offered by the University and several are minors in physics, mathematics and nuclear engineering.
“Working with NASA has been a dream of mine since 9th grade when I did a National History Day project on Neil Armstrong,” Hermanson said.
Bjorn, who is a double major in mechanical engineering and German, said her mother told her when she was young that she wanted to be able to say, “My daughter, the rocket scientist.”
“And when it actually happens, I can say I played a part in it,” Bjorn said.
“Working on this project is very cool,” said Danny Kruzick of South Windsor, Connecticut. “Like most kids, I wanted to be an astronaut. Space science and engineering to get to space are both demanding disciplines. It’s not a guess.
Collin Treacy of Ballston Spa, NY, an applied math and mechanical engineering student, said the course incorporates everything he and his fellow students learned during their first three years in the mechanical engineering program. “This project brings together physics, chemistry, engineering and mathematics.”
Honghao Zhen of Westerly, knows that such a course is “important because it gives me a start in the space industry and it could lead to careers with NASA or aerospace companies. We spent many late nights together in virtual and in-person meetings. We even consulted old textbooks to learn more.
Murphy and Venagro said one of the most enjoyable parts of the project was working with students from other schools and NASA interns.
“This rocket is an entirely new concept,” Venagro said.