CSU students win big for NASA Space Grant anniversary

The 2019-2020 robotics autonomous vehicle team
The 2019-2020 robotics autonomous vehicle team.

CSU mechanical engineering students received several honors at the 2020 Colorado Undergraduate Space Research Symposium earlier this spring — a testament to a 30-year commitment to space education and project-based learning.

Employees from NASA and industry giants Ball Aerospace and Lockheed Martin joined 160 students from Colorado Space Grant Consortium (COSGC) affiliate universities in a remote video conference to judge the students NASA-funded team challenge projects.

The panel of aerospace professionals recognized two teams of CSU students with best in-session presentation awards. Members of the public who attended put a third CSU team at the top of the people’s choice category.

Fueled by female ingenuity

Entering as the team’s first all-female lead, the four members of the 2019-2020 CSU Rocket Team presented independently from the four COSGC challenge programs and won a best in-session paper presentation award for “Muon Detector Onboard an Experimental Sounding Rocket.”

“I believe in the strength of having a female-led team as we have all experienced being the ‘underdog,'” said Propulsion Lead Susan Ossareh, a graduating senior with a double major in mechanical engineering and engineering science and a minor in mathematics. “We’ve felt the systemic odds against us in the past, so together, we really worked to make that extra effort to emerge on top.”

The mission behind the prize-winning paper: build a liquid propellant sounding rocket with a muon detector on-board and launch in the desert to a height of 30,000 feet.

Sounding rockets take measurements and perform a scientific experiment, otherwise known as a payload. The team designed a payload to detect the density of negatively charged subatomic particles in Earth’s atmosphere called muons, which can harm electronics in orbiting space.

Using liquid fuel, as opposed to solid, means having to fill the rocket from 2,000 feet away.

“Imagine trying to put fuel in your car without being able to touch the pump or your car,” said Ossareh.

Mixing the ideal ratio of fuel and cryogenic oxidizer in 110-degree weather to propel a rocket to the cruising altitude of commercial aircraft is proof that the CSU Rocket Team has star power.

An economical system for exploring Mars

The 2019-2020 rocket team
The 2019-2020 rocket team.

The objective of COSGC’s robotics challenge is to design an autonomous vehicle that could traverse on Martian terrain. The result for CSU Robotics Team was an award for best presentation in-session for their poster, titled “Affordable Application of Rocker-Bogie Suspension.”

The team focused on cost-effectiveness and durability. To build the robot, they used an inexpensive and readily available dense plastic, simple aluminum shapes, and a suspension arrangement without springs or stub axles — a design used in NASA’s Mars rovers to climb over obstacles up to twice the wheel’s diameter in size while keeping all six wheels on the ground.

Participating teams test their robots’ performance during a simulated Mars mission at the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado; the park’s windy weather, natural vegetation, and sand mimic the environment these self-controlled vehicles are designed to explore.

Graduating civil engineering student Stephen Rencher credits the symposium for helping his team develop skills they will need in the future. “I believe the symposium has cultivated a greater interest not just for robot technology but in how to connect with other engineers,” said Rencher. “Through this project, we learned how to find resources around us, creating connections, and new opportunities.”

Where there’s a wearable, there’s a way

The 2019-2020 wearables team
The 2019-2020 wearables team.

Students who enter COSGC’s wearables challenge are tasked with creating a technology that is worn on the body and performs a function. The CSU team of female engineering students chose to tackle the project with purpose by designing an aid aimed at returning independence to individuals with vision problems.

The Depth Perception Buddy is a waistband that uses ultrasonic sensors to detect changes in elevation and fast-approaching objects. Tiny motors create vibrations when potential hazards register at 100 cm distance, giving the user plenty of time to avoid contact.

The device made an impact on those who logged on to vote; it won People’s Choice, a video category new to this year’s competition.

The symposium represents more than a chance to compete for a top score to the team.

“We have tapped into this community of individuals and mentors with whom we got to connect and who want to continue to help us, and that’s already an opportunity,” said team member Vanessa Montoya, a sophomore student majoring in computer science. “My teammates and I have also begun considering other careers that we otherwise wouldn’t have. Like positions at NASA.”

CSU’s place in space education

COSGC is one of 52 Space Grant consortia nationwide and consists of 21 Colorado colleges and universities. Each COSGC affiliate’s involvement is unique, and CSU has been an active member since the consortium’s inception in 1980.

Funded through NASA’s Space Grant Program and under the direction of Azer Yalin, a professor in the CSU Department of Mechanical Engineering, teams of undergraduate engineering and science students draw on the strength of their multidisciplinary backgrounds to complete challenging projects in COSGC’s programs.

“Working with these teams and seeing the amazing projects that our undergraduate students are capable of, is a very rewarding element of my job.  As well as providing these project opportunities, the COSGC also provides a great sense of community for space-related researchers from diverse institutions all across the state,” said Yalin.

Weekly meetings with their advisor keep the teams within budget and on-track to present their results and compete for cash prizes at the consortium’s annual symposium. CSU has attended all 25, and the recent success is something to celebrate.

“It is unusual for CSU to win three awards,” said Tad Wegner, a graduate student in Yalin’s lab and advisor to this year’s robotics and wearables teams. “We are one of two schools this year to have three winning teams.”

This year, the state-mandated shutdown of campuses due to the coronavirus pandemic forced group project work to cease and COSGC to move the symposium online. Still, it could not dampen the spirit of the space grant community.

“Although all participants were in the midst of dealing with professional, academic, and personal worlds that had quickly changed, everyone came together to create an event that celebrated student effort, ingenuity, and potential,” said COGSC Deputy Director Bernadette Garcia Galvez. “It was definitely a high point of our year.”