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A team of Embry-Riddle Daytona Beach Campus faculty and students, as well as industry partners and Embry-Riddle alumni recently collaborated on a series of spacecraft-propellant experiments aboard a NASA parabolic aircraft at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.  

The team’s experiments in zero gravity focused on the dynamics of on-orbit propellant transfer. With long term space missions to comets, asteroids, and other planets envisioned for the future, the team believes that existing technology could be adapted to refuel on-orbit spacecraft in ways that would negate the need for the continual development of heavy-lift vehicles, thereby saving time and money.

Team member Nathan Silvernail ('10, DB) performed and collected data during the experiments for United Launch Alliance (ULA), which is working with NASA to develop technologies to achieve commercial space transportation goals. The experiments will also contribute to Silvernail’s thesis project; he is in the process of earning a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Embry-Riddle.

“We’re dealing with the development of an on-orbit propellant storage and transfer system that can autonomously refill a spacecraft. Last month at Johnson Space Center we successfully proved a few theories would work in Zero G,” said Silvernail.

Other team members included Silvernail’s advisor, Sathya Gangadharan, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering and the first university faculty member to fly on NASA’s microgravity aircraft; Dillon Sances ('08, '10, DB); Keith Schlee ('04, '06, DB) of Orbital Sciences Corp.; Peter Wilson of ULA; and Alvar Saenz-Otero, Ph.D. of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

It was Maj Mirmirani, Ph.D., dean of Embry-Riddle’s College of Engineering, who suggested Gangadharan and Silvernail meet with Stephen Altemus ('87, DB), Johnson Space Center’s director of engineering, to discuss the possibility of collaborating. Altemus serves on the Embry-Riddle Industry Advisory Board for the College of Engineering.

“United Launch Alliance provided a basic design and the means of performing the fuel transfers in Zero G,” said Gangadharan. “Nathan then developed the scale model and designed his own parts to get it all to work. I’ve been very impressed by his dedication and the quality of his work.”

Silvernail is now working with ULA to validate the results of the experiments and to develop computational models on which the company can base its designs for on-orbit propellant storage and transfer systems.

Additional experiments are planned for later this year. Silvernail, under the guidance of Gangadharan, will prepare a payload similar to the one flown in zero gravity at Johnson Space Center for experimental suborbital sounding rocket flights. NASA is sponsoring the test flights and Masten Space Systems will provide the rocket.

In addition, Gangadharan and Silvernail are collaborating with the Space Science Laboratory at MIT to develop scalable tests for astronauts to conduct on the International Space Station that would determine the dynamic characteristics of on-orbit refueling using a test bed developed by MIT called SPHERES. The project will eventually involve both Embry-Riddle students and students from MIT.