Campus News

UB student team to participate in NASA challenge

UB’s Micro-g NExT team: Cornato Vella, Asad Esa, Ifechukwu Ononye, Seamus Lombardo, Michael Esswein, Alexander Hathaway and faculty advisor Manoranjan Majji.

UB’s Micro-g NExT team: From left, Cornato Vella, Asad Esa, Ifechukwu Ononye, Seamus Lombardo (with “Quad Claw”), Michael Esswein, Alexander Hathaway and faculty adviser Manoranjan Majji. Photo: The Onion Studio


Published May 21, 2015

“In addition to being an educational experience for our students, their design will have real implications for human space exploration. ”
Manoranjan Majji, assistant professor
Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

A team of talented UB students has been invited to take part in real-life NASA research and development. 

Under a new NASA microgravity activity called Micro-g Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams (Micro-g NExT), UB and 18 other undergraduate student teams from around the country were selected to design and build technology to address and rectify authentic, current space-exploration problems.

The teams will travel to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston this summer, where they will test their devices in the simulated microgravity environment of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), the same 6.2-million-gallon indoor pool used to train astronauts for spacewalking.

“In addition to being an educational experience for our students, their design will have real implications for human space exploration,” says Manoranjan Majji, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and faculty adviser for the UB team. “NASA will need a device that effectively captures asteroid samples and our prototype will contribute ideas for the final version.”

The UB team is building a “Quad Claw” device that could enable an astronaut to obtain float samples from an asteroid. It was one of five possible challenges put forward by the Micro-g-NexT program that were identified by NASA engineers as being necessary in future space exploration missions.

“Our design consists of a detachable claw controlled by triggers on a handle at the end of the device to enable one-handed operation, which is one of NASA’s requirements,” says Ifechukwu Ononye, an aerospace engineering junior and project lead. “NASA also specified material, size, weight and safety requirements for the device. On top of this, the tool has to be designed to be neutrally buoyant while in water.”

Seamus Lombardo, a sophomore aerospace engineering student, notes the underwater aspect of the challenge had an impact on the materials the team selected to make the device. “Water is much heavier than air or the void of space. Designs that would perform well in our atmosphere might not have the power needed to function very well in an underwater environment,” he explains.

“Another important feature is that the device has to ensure that there is no cross-contamination between the four samples. We designed the device to have four compartments to allow the claw heads to be interchanged to avoid this problem.”

In addition to the technical requirements, specific procedural steps were laid out for the teams by the Micro-g-NexT program. The students must follow a structured, well-documented design process that will culminate in a design review with NASA.

“Experiences like this enable our students to see first-hand how theory is put into practice,” says Kemper Lewis, chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “It helps to create a deeper understanding of core engineering and design principles.”

Outreach is another important aspect of the challenge. Michael Esswein, a mechanical engineering sophomore, heads up the team’s efforts to introduce pre-collegiate students to careers in space exploration.

“Part of the project includes reaching out to local schools, with an aim to get kids excited about space exploration and to let them know that there are many ways to help NASA,” says Esswein, who has spoken to middle school students at the Kadimah School in Amherst and has more presentations planned between now and the end of the school year.

The microgravity challenge is a part of NASA’s “Path to Mars” plan to send astronauts to an asteroid in the mid-2020s, where part of their mission will be to gather samples from the asteroid for scientific analysis.

In addition to Ononye, Lombardo and Esswein, team members include Alexander Hathaway, Asad Esa, Paul Stathis and Cornato Vella.