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NASA Selects Early Stage Innovations from US Universities for Multi-Year Research, Development

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
November 20, 2019
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WASHINGTON, DC (NASA PR) — Universities help propel NASA technology forward, researching everything from unique rocket engine designs to how landers interact with surfaces on other worlds. NASA has selected 14 university-led research proposals to study early-stage technologies relevant to these topics and more. The grants will fund ambitious projects to mature technologies for future NASA missions.

“There are talented researchers outside of NASA, working at universities across the country, who are poised to help us look at challenging aspects of space exploration in new ways,” said Walt Engelund, deputy associate administrator of programs within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington. “With the help of these institutions and principal investigators, NASA will accelerate innovation for critical space technologies.”

The university teams will work on their proposed research and development projects for up to three years and will receive as much as $550,000 each in Early Stage Innovations grant funding from NASA’s Space Technology Research Grants program.

As outlined in NASA’s Early Stage Innovations 2019 solicitation, the proposals address six new topic areas. The selected universities, principal investigators and research projects by topic area, are:

Topic 1: Rotating Detonation Rocket Engine Concept Development

Rockets that launch spacecraft into orbit are large, complex machines. The research selected under this topic will develop technology for rotating detonation rocket engines, which could make future rockets less expensive and more capable. These engines use a different reaction to burn their fuel, which releases more energy than today’s rocket engines. 

  • University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa
    Principal Investigator: Ajay Agrawal
    A novel hybrid rotating detonation engine optimized with aerospike nozzle for rocket applications
  • University of California, Los Angeles
    Principal Investigator: Raymond Spearrin
    Hypergolic rotating detonation rocket propulsion with low pressure-loss injection and advanced thermal management
  • Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana
    Principal Investigator: Stephen Heister
    Rotating detonation combustion for space engines using reduced toxicity hypergolic propellants

Topic 2: Chemical Heat Integrated Power Systems

Powering and heating spacecraft can be challenging, especially far from the Sun where solar panels provide less and less energy. Research conducted under this topic will explore storable chemical heat sources that can be controlled to provide heat and electrical energy, even in the very hot or very cold conditions found on some planetary destinations.

  • University of Central Florida, Orlando
    Principal Investigator: Subith Vasu
    Propagation controlled solid fuel-oxidant reactions for the generation of harvestable heat
  • University of Texas, El Paso
    Principal Investigator: ​Evgeny Shafirovich
    Controllable combustion of metal fuels for space power systems

Topic 3: Rocket Plume-Surface Interaction Prediction Advancements

Under the Artemis program, NASA will return humans to the Moon by 2024 in preparation for future missions to Mars. One challenge of planetary landings are engine plumes that can blow sandy soils in all directions and at very high speeds. These particles can obscure the landing zone and damage the landing spacecraft or other human-made infrastructure in the area. The following efforts seek to understand how rocket plumes interact with soil on the Moon and Mars so negative effects can be minimized.

  • Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama
    Principal Investigator: David Scarborough
    Non-intrusive approaches to full-domain, scaling-law based experimental investigation of crater formation and plume-surface interaction dynamics
  • University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
    Principal Investigator: Laura Villafane
    Fundamental experiments of jet impingement on granular surfaces
  • University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
    Principal Investigator: Jesse ​​Capecelatro
    Multiscale modeling to enable physics-based simulations of plume-surface interactions with quantified uncertainty

Topic 4: Machine/Deep Learning Tools for Protecting Astronauts from Solar Energetic Particle Hazards

Outside of the protective barrier of Earth’s magnetic field, particles emitted during solar flares and other space weather events can damage spacecraft and be harmful to astronauts. The proposals selected under this topic will develop artificial intelligence technologies to better predict these events and give astronauts ample time to protect themselves from these particles.

  • Florida Institute of Technology, Melbourne
    Principal Investigator: Ming Zhang​
    Prediction of solar energetic particle radiation timing and dosage using physics-guided machine learning algorithms with remote observations of the solar photosphere, corona and interplanetary medium
  • New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark
    Principal Investigator: Alexander ​Kosovichev
    Machine learning tools for predicting solar energetic particle hazards

Topic 5: Next Generation Durability and Damage Tolerance Methodologies

Most spacecraft are made of metal alloys that have well-defined characteristics at observable scales. At the microscopic level, however, their behavior is not well understood. The research conducted under this topic will develop tools to model these materials on the microscopic scale in order to understand their failure mechanisms and how they can be made more durable.

  • Purdue University
    Principal Investigator: Michael​ Sangid
    Microstructure and defect informed predictions of damage tolerance and durability of materials and structures, including verification and uncertainty quantification
  • Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee
    Principal Investigator: Caglar Oskay
    Stochastic multiscale fatigue life prediction framework for next generation durability and damage tolerance 

Topic 6: Integration of Cryogenic Fluid Two Phase Numerical Modeling Techniques

Future exploration missions will require cryogenic propellants to be stored in a spacecraft’s tanks for months or even years at a time, but the behavior of cryogenic fluids in space is very different from how it acts on Earth. The following efforts will develop novel approaches to modeling these types of conditions to better understand how to design long-term missions and their propellant storage systems. 

  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York
    Principal Investigator: Shanbin Shi
    Development of an intelligent coupling approach for modeling and prediction of cryogenic propellant behavior in microgravity during long-term storage
  • Florida State University, Tallahassee
    Principal Investigator: Kourosh Shoele
    Fast multilevel multi-phase CFD-nodal (computational fluid dynamics) model for cryogenic applications

The Space Technology Research Grants program is funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, which develops transformative space technologies to enable future missions.

For more information about NASA’s Space Technology Research Grants program, visit:

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