UTEP Student Engineering Team Heads to Houston for NASA Challenge

Six engineering students will have the opportunity to test their design skills at the NASA Micro-g Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams – Micro-g NExT – activity in Houston May 24-26, 2017.

“This experience is very useful for students,” said Evgeny Shafirovich, Ph.D., associate professor and faculty adviser for the UTEP team. “They learn how to use their design skills in practice, communicate their ideas, prepare technical documents, and work in a team.”

The challenge tasks student teams to design, build and test a tool or device that addresses an authentic, current space exploration challenge. In this case, the UTEP Space Miner Team developed an air-powered drilling tool with sample collector to enable an astronaut to obtain a subsurface sample of an asteroid or a planet.

“We really had to think out the process and that’s where we applied our engineering skills,” said senior mechanical engineering student and team lead Cesar Acosta. “We had to think it out, draw it, get a 3-D picture of it, see if it fits and determine how we want it to operate. That gives you a real good idea of whether it will work or not, but realistically once you start manufacturing, it’s a completely different story. For us, that was a huge learning curve because we wanted to build something that was very complicated and neat and as we started manufacturing and testing, it turned out to be something completely different,” he said.

Their research included looking at what tools are used in the oil industry and by geologists in the field, and developing a device that can operate in microgravity. The group spent the past two semesters researching and building their prototypes, preparing for the test and fulfilling 13 requirements.

“It was very challenging but we are so happy … that we are going to NASA,” said junior mechanical engineering student Hussam Amjad Alzateemeh. “We are in a team; we’re building something that may go to Mars in the future.”

During the team’s stay at Johnson Space Center, they will participate in a series of workshops, design review and testing sessions. Test operations will be conducted in the simulated microgravity environment of the NASA Johnson Space Center Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), a 40-foot deep pool where astronauts train for spacewalks. Professional NBL divers will test the tools and students will direct the divers.

UTEP students will compete among teams from 29 higher education institutions, including top national research universities such as Cornell; Purdue; the University of California, Los Angeles; and Columbia.

UTEP alumnus and former astronaut John “Danny” Olivas, Ph.D., served as a NASA mentor for the UTEP team.

This is UTEP’s ninth team selected by NASA for the microgravity student programs since 2011.

UTEP students on the team are Cesar Acosta, Hussam Amjad Alzateemeh, Luis Codina, Alejandro Contreras, Briana Moreno and Jarenny Santiesteban. All are mechanical engineering students with the exception of Codina, who is studying electrical engineering.

The Space Miners’ Micro-g project is supported by the UTEP Department of Mechanical Engineering and its NASA MIRO Center for Space Exploration and Technology Research (cSETR).