Space Cadets

If found, please return to the third planet from the Sun is engraved on one of the circuit boards.

Tom Rusnock grinned. "This got done at 4:30 in the morning one night," he admitted. "A company in Florida made the boards for us for free. When they called me, they were cracking up. 'We love your boards,' they said."

And they engraved them exactly as the students had specified: The only way to predict the future is to invent it.

11 people standing in semi-circle
James Collins

For four years, students in EE 492 or AERO 492 with Russel Philbrick (far right) -- have had the option of working on a "Get-Away Special" Shuttle experiment. At the May 19 launch were Tom Rusnock, Beth Campos, Michael White, Linda Baker, Nicole Prewitt, Wes Voshell, Ail Nanduri, Andy Loser, Ken Hibbard, Todd Fischer, Bill Durbin, and Chris Fay.

It's a NASA project, after all, even if it was designed by a cadre of graduate and undergraduate at Penn State. And NASA's specs are pretty, well, specific. You don't change something lightly. Like what's engraved on the circuit boards: If you build it they will come.

The canister that was bolted to the Space Shuttle bay, among a dozen of its peers, for the May 19, 1996, launch, measured 32 inches tall and 27 inches around. It held three experiments—one to record the pings made by space junk hitting the Shuttle, one to measure the magnetic field in and around the spacecraft, the third to find the effects of cosmic radiation on certain computer memory chips—altogether the work of some 100 engineering students over four years.

"It's nobody's thesis," explained Anil Nanduri, a first-year graduate student. Like Rusnock, a fourth-year undergraduate, and Hans Paal, an undergraduate, he was in charge of one of the experiments.

"My thesis is on something totally different," concurred Payload Manager Bill Durbin, a graduate student in electrical engineering. Durbin coordinated the three experimental groups with the structural group and the power group, and interacted with NASA and Lockheed Martin, which donated the launch fee. "We did this for the pure love of space," he said, "or because of blackmail from class.

"Every spring EE 492 class, every Aerospace 492—" he continued, referring to classes taught by Russell Philbrick, the faculty instigator of Penn State's latest (and second) "Get-Away Special" Shuttle investigation. "In previous years it had been an option to work on it," Durbin said. "This year"—what with the launch date set for May—"there was no option."

In mid March, the students displayed their creation at the annual Graduate Research Exhibition. By the end of the month, they were running the final tests preparatory to packing it up and, essentially, screwing on the NASA-approved lid.

Into the pressurized cylinder went 160 D batteries, wrapped in a rubber compound and held together in a brick with Teflon tape. "NASA told us all the restrictions," explained Durbin. "We had to have the batteries pressurized if we used alkaline ones, and they're the best."

Two hours after the Shuttle hits orbit, the experiments will start drawing juice. "One experiment, the magnetometer, turns off after seven hours," explained Durbin, "because it's a high current draw." The magnetometer not only charts Earth's magnetic field as the Shuttle orbits, but looks at electromagnetic interference from all the other gizmos on the craft.

The other two experiments "go until the batteries die," Durbin said. (Philbrick's estimate was seven days.)

One might be commercially important: seeing if cosmic rays provoke "logic upsets" in certain computer chips. "You don't want data errors in space," noted Nanduri, "so the manufacturers want to show they're 'space qualified.'"

But NASA is most interested in Rusnock's project: It hasn't been done before. "We'll listen to the vibrations in the Shuttle structure," Rusnock explained, "and see if we can detect the impact of micrometeors."

"The general term," added Durbin, "is 'orbital debris.' Basically, it's a piece of sand or a pebble in orbit around Earth. It could be a bolt off a satellite. Debris from a rocket. There's a lot of junk floating around up there."

Said Rusnock, "Particles that small tend to erode the surface of the spacecraft. Just before the Challenger accident, they put up what they called 'a soda can in space' to see the effects of orbital debris. They weren't able to retrieve it for seven years, and when they did it was Swiss cheese. It's not a problem with the Shuttle, but if the Space Station is up there a long time—"

"They'd at least want to know where the debris hit, to know if they had to go out and check the damage," noted Durbin.

"We've got very sensitive microphones in here," Rusnock continued, "sensors mounted on the structure. They'll pick up whatever noise propagates through the Shuttle."

If an astronaut bangs into a wall?

"That'll probably be picked up and registered as a micrometeor impact."

"But," corrected Durbin, "we'll be able to compare our impact data with the NASA logs. If the astronauts are sleeping, then it was definitely a micrometeor."

"We're testing the technology," Rusnock clarified, "to see if, in looking at a signal, you can detect a micrometeor impact."

"We're also measuring the background noise to compare to future flights," said Durbin. "They have no idea what the background noise on the Shuttle is. We're kind of guessing at what it might be, and the sensors correct for that."

"Actually," corrected Rusnock, eyeing the contraption, "what we're recording is raw data. We'll be processing out the background noise back here next fall and spring." He reached into his quadrant of the canister and peeled off a note: If this is beeping, it's a good thing.

"What was that?" asked Durbin.

"This? I left it running last night, so I left a note for anybody who came in this morning."

"So, was it beeping?"

Rusnock grinned. "No, but I found out why."

—Nancy Marie Brown

Bill Durbin and Anil Nanduri are graduate students in electrical engineering; Tom Rusnock and Hans Paal are undergraduates. Graduate student Todd Fisher is leader of the structure group. Russell Philbrick, Ph.D., is professor of electrical engineering in the College of Engineering, 315 Electrical Engineering East, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-2975. Their Get-Away Special experiment received support from Lockheed Martin, Protocircuit of Florida, Real Time Devices, Vicor, Belden Wire, National Semiconductor, and Motorola.

Last Updated January 01, 1997