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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Life + Arts

Partnership creates research opportunities

Scientists from the Institute for Space Systems Operations and UH Space Physics Group involve UH in nearly all aspects of space exploration and discovery – from developing powerful rocket propulsion systems to researching how pathogens react in space.

At the cutting edge of plasma physics, UH physics professor Edgar Bering is developing a novel engine type that can be used in long-duration space flight.

Current rocket engines rely on chemical reactions to push the spacecraft, but Bering’s concept instead uses focused plasma to propel the vehicle.

‘NASA has basically been using the same technology now as when they launched the Apollo rockets,’ Bering said, referring to NASA’s manned missions from the ’60s and early ’70s.

How fast an engine can propel a spacecraft depends on its exhaust velocity, with chemical rockets maintaining an exhaust velocity of between two and three kilometers per second.

‘You would prefer to have a system that is 20 to 70 kilometers per second, and there isn’t anything that you can do to get that with chemical rockets,’ Bering said.

Plasma engines, however, use powerful magnets to focus a beam of superheated, ionized gas as it is expelled and are capable of attaining those desired exhaust velocities.

Bering says he hopes to see this technology put to use soon. Based on research done at UH, a working model has already been developed by the private enterprise Ad Astra Rocket Company.

Known as the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, it may serve on future manned missions to Mars.

In addition to rockets, the Space Physics Group has been working with NASA to understand the flow of matter and energy in the earth’s upper atmosphere.

This is a concern because mobile telephone signals, Global Positioning Systems, and observation satellites that reside in this region of space can be affected by these energy fluctuations.

‘This is an area of considerable economic importance,’ said Bering.

The goal is to be able to detect and predict surges in solar and cosmic radiation with hopes of preventing damage to satellites and spacecraft.

Electric and magnetic field detectors devised by UH scientists have been used in numerous high altitude balloon experiments, with at least 12 more flights planned.

‘Just as meteorologists study hurricanes in order to prepare for them, we study space weather in order to prepare for its effects,’ Bering said.

Other UH scientists have been able to work with NASA thanks to the school’s Institute for Space Systems Operations.

Formed in 1992, and headed by faculty ISSO director David Criswell, the institute provides funding for research with applications in the space industry.

‘The goal of the ISSO is to allow any faculty member interested in joint projects with Johnson Space Center to pursue their research,’ Criswell said.

The program’s returns have been substantial, bringing in close to $27 million dollars of external funds since its beginning.

In 2007, the most recent year studied, 65 professional papers were generated by participating scientists and 40 additional research proposals were submitted.

The work ranges from biology to engineering, with a diversity that Criswell called ‘a little bit surprising.’

For example, biology professor George Fox is investigating how zero gravity and radiation affect microbial life.’ Understanding how pathogens react to conditions in space is crucial to any long-duration human mission.

Additionally, college of technology professor Driss Benhaddou is working on advanced wireless networks with potential use in lunar vehicles and communication systems.

ISSO’s recent annual report can be found on the organization website,

‘Providing funding for the basic sciences we can help lead to real world applications,’ Criswell said.

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