The National Aeronautics and Space Administration initiated its EPSCoR program in 1994 through its office of Human Resources and Education. Twenty-eight states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico currently participate. The NASA Nebraska Space Grant at the University of Nebraska at Omaha administers this program in Nebraska. Below is a list of currently funded NASA EPSCoR projects in Nebraska. These proposals rose through state and national review processes among other eligible jurisdictions. The $750,000 awards have a 100 percent matching requirement, span three years, and address specific, high-priority NASA technology and research development needs.
Large Volume Crystal Growth of Superoxide Dismutase Complexes in Microgravity for Neutron Diffraction Studies
Dr. Gloria Borgstahl, University of Nebraska Medical Center
Superoxide dismutases (SODs) are important antioxidant enzymes that protect all living cells against toxic oxygen metabolites, also known as reactive oxygen species (ROS). SODs are one of the fastest known enzymes with a kcat/Km of 109 M-1s-1and are rate-limited only by the diffusion of the substrate and products. SODs are the first line of defense to protect organisms against metabolically generated and/or ionizing radiation-induced ROS. SOD protects cells by dismuting two molecules of superoxide anions to form hydrogen peroxide and molecular oxygen via a cyclic oxidation-reduction reaction. SODs contain metal ions in their active sites. Humans have Cu/ZnSOD in the cytosol and extracellular spaces and MnSOD in their mitochondria. Mutations in SOD lead to aging and degenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), diabetes, and cancer. This proposal will study SODs from the model system Escherichia coli as they are easy to produce, stable, and the active sites are identical with human homologs. Bacteria have both Fe and MnSOD. Despite the biological and medical importance of SOD, the complete enzymatic mechanism is still unknown. Precise structural data are needed. The binding sites of the diatomic substrate and product as well as the source of the protons in the reaction have been studied, but their exact identification has not been possible. This detailed information can only be determined by neutron diffraction. Complexes of Fe and MnSOD including structural intermediates and mutants will be the targets for large volume crystal (≥ 1mm3) growth for structure determination by neutron macromolecular crystallography (NMC). The quiescent environment afforded by microgravity is known to grow crystals large enough for neutron studies. In 2001, the Borgstahl laboratory successfully grew large crystals of SOD using microgravity conditions on the International Space Station (ISS). With NASA’s renewed interest in implementing the microgravity environment on the ISS for protein crystal growth we would like to move forward with these exciting early microgravity crystallization results for SOD. Existing crystallization facilities, such as the Granada Crystallization Facility (GCF) that employs capillary counterdiffusion protocols or the Handheld High Density Protein Crystal Growth (HDPCG) hardware that uses vapor diffusion methods will be used to achieve these goals. A microgravity environment is essential to form a stable supersaturation gradient to obtain the large crystals required for NMC. Then NMC will be performed with collaborators at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The principal outcome will be to identify the role of hydrogen atoms in enzymatic activity, discern superoxide from peroxide and water from hydroxide ion by their protonation state and decipher a structure-based mechanism for Mn and FeSODs more precisely than from previous X-ray crystallographic models determined from Earth-grown crystals. These contributions will also provide criteria needed for the protein engineering of desirable properties into enzymatic metal centers for proton coupled electron transfer.
Highly Permanent Biomimetic Micro/Nanostructured Surfaces by Femtosecond Laser Surface Processing for Thermal Management Systems
Dr. George Gogos, University of Nebraska - Lincoln, Department of Mechanical & Materials Engineering
Nebraska Professors George Gogos, Dennis Alexander and Sidy Ndao are leading an interdisciplinary effort to create functionalized metallic surfaces for thermal management systems in space applications. They treat a surface with a laser to create microstructures and nanostructures, thus giving the metal entirely different and desirable properties.
This method is preferred over coatings and polymers as they are not very permanent, especially at high temperatures. The team says many of these other polymers are wonderful, but we all know Teflon comes off our cooking pans. “When we functionalize a metallic surface, the altered surface material is exactly the same as what you start out with. Because of that, the functionalized surfaces are much more permanent,” says Alexander. When the researchers functionalized stainless steel pans, they noticed that water boiled more quickly than in an untreated pan. That is when research began on the heat-transfer properties associated with these new surfaces. The NASA EPSCoR grant will allow for better thermal management of NASA applications by using titanium and silicon carbide in the functionalization process to improve thermal heat management during space travel. The team has strong NASA collaborations at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, including work with Dr. Janet Hurst, Dr. Mohammad Hasan, and Dr. Vehda Nayagam. A doctoral student on the team is the recipient of the prestigious NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship, the first awarded to a Nebraska student. This research is making an impact on the research capacity in Nebraska. An invention disclosure has been submitted and is currently being considered for patent application. The research is of interest to Nebraska industry where the team is collaborating with companies such as Hexagon Lincoln, Li-Cor, ConAgra, and Global Functionalized Surface Technologies (GFS) to solve specific problems and advance manufacturing technology.
Neutron Voltaics for Deep Space Missions
Dr. Axel Enders, University of Nebraska - Lincoln, Physics & Astronomy
The 2011 NASA Strategic Vision and 2011 NASA Strategic Plan discuss the need for deep space probes to help in understanding the universe. These probes must be powered by a non-solar source, while at the same time they will need to be shielded from intense neutron exposure during exploration. Both needs can be met by the development of a robust lightweight neutron absorber material: neutron based photovoltaic devices can potentially be this alternative power supplies for deep space satellites and probes. This power generation approach relies on the direct conversion of neutrons into electric power, which can be highly efficient and requires the probe to carry a much smaller amount of radioactive material to supply the neutrons than the sub-critical reactor in use today. The key component in this scheme is the neutron voltaic device. The PIs have demonstrated a neutron voltaic device based on boron carbide that can serve as the basis of neutron voltaics to power deep space probes. This new approach to powering deep space satellites is an important new space technology for exploration and could be an important element for all satellites. The objective of the proposed work is to develop boron carbide polymers from C2B10Hx icosahedra building blocks, with controlled p-type and n-type semiconducting doping. Based on these materials, the process parameters to synthesize several micrometer thick films and multilayers by plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition will be established. The neutron-absorbing properties of films will enable three distinctive but intrinsically related applications that are relevant to NASA, which are (i) light-weight coatings for deepspace probes to shield them from intense neutron exposure during exploration, (ii) effective neutron-voltaics devices to power deep space probes, and (iii) all-boron carbide gamma-blind neutron detectors of unprecedented efficiency, to provide insight into cosmic rays, solar neutrons, neutron stars, pulsars and supernovas during NASA’s deep space missions. The proposed research program includes a materials science approach to establish the fundamental basis of boron carbides and the development of proof-of-concept devices. Central element is the design continuum between experiment and theory for the development of materials for neutron photovoltaics. This means that first target materials are identified through a rigorous theoretical analysis that identifies materials that exhibit a suitable band structure while being mechanically stable. Synthetic routes to the target materials will then be developed, both through laboratory experimental efforts as well as through model thermodynamic cluster calculations. With the materials in hand, the major goal is to fabricate working devices to be tested as neutron detectors, or neutron voltaics, with a device architecture that optimizes the resulting device for the application. All devices proposed here are based on thin films of boron carbide, which can potentially be uniformly deposited over any surface topography. Therefore, these films could produce electricity while also acting as an excellent neutron shield increasing the operational life of satellites equipped with this technology. Preliminary but extensive studies have demonstrated the potential of boron carbide films for gamma-blind neutron detection, and the ability to systematically vary electronic structure through selective doping, to develop novel radiation sensors based on doped boron carbide homo- and hetero-junctions. The outcome of this work will enable robust, stable gamma-blind neutron detectors with dramatically enhanced detection efficiencies. It will help NASA to create new technology to power space probes and enable future space missions. Success will also permit the future design of made to order materials for neutron radiation sensing, as well as novel electronic applications.
A Highly Dexterous Modular Robot with Autonomous Dynamic Reconfigurations for Extra-Terrestrial Exploration
Dr. Raj Dasgupta, University of Nebraska at Omaha
This proposal was motivated by the need to improve existing techniques for automated exploring of extraterrestrial surfaces such as the Lunar and Martian surfaces. Our proposed solution uses modular selfreconfigurable robots (MSRs) that are composed of multiple, closely interacting modules coupled together to achieve the desired shape and motion of the overall robot. MSRs are particularly attractive for maneuvering in non-uniform and unpredictable surfaces such as extra-terrestrial environments because they can dynamically adapt their gait and shape based on the current operational and environment conditions. Our proposed research plan enhances the state-of-the-art techniques for exploration using MSRs along two major directions. The first direction pursues an advanced design of a highly dexterous MSR called ModRED (Modular Robot for
Exploration and Discovery). Unlike previously designed modular robots which have limited mobility in tight spaces due to a maximum possible 3-DOF (degrees of freedom), ModRED has 4-DOF that will allow it to maneuver itself efficiently after encountering various types of obstacles. Our second research direction is to develop technologies to autonomously control the configuration and navigation of ModRED. Previous research in the control of MSRs has mainly been done in a 'hand-crafted-by-humans' manner - the movement
of every module required to achieve a desired gait for the overall robot is specified a priori using a static 'gait' table. Our proposal attempts to automate these hand-crafted behaviors of the robot by developing novel methodologies that combine control theory-based multi-robot team formation techniques with game theorybased multi-agent coalition formation techniques. We will investigate techniques that allow ModRED to
monitor its own performance and dynamically adjust its shape and gait pattern after encountering occlusions in its path, so that it can continue its exploration of the environment efficiently while reducing its energy consumption and the time required to complete the exploration operation. We propose to validate our research results using theoretical analyses, simulation experiments and tests on the physical ModRED robot. Beyond NASA, the research results can also be easily applied to various other domains such as reconnaissance and patrolling missions for homeland security applications, semi-automated human surgery for medical applications, automated lawn-mowing or cattle herding, or for domestic applications. The PIs have already established contacts and presented preliminary research results to NASA scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Goddard Space Flight Center with an intent to collaborate on this project. The PIs have also contributed to the NASA workforce by supervising undergraduate and graduate students in research supported on NASA-Nebraska mini-grants. These students have been subsequently selected by internship programs at the Langley Research Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The proposed project has tremendous potential for sustainability and technology transfer to industry as the research results can be adapted by different industries for various applications. The PIs have also successfully worked in the past with
industry partners to transfer their research into commercial products through federally sponsored STTR grants (both Phase I and Phase II). Finally, the technologies developed in the proposed project are likely to have a strong value for Nebraska by developing automated robotic applications for agriculture-related and medicine related domains, both of which are major state-supported research initiatives.
The Role of Tactile Sensation on Locomotor Adaptation in Astronauts Returning from Long Duration Space Flights
Dr. Nick Stergiou, University of Nebraka at Omaha, Nebraska Biomechanics Core Facility
According to the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, astronauts who go on space flights, face balance problems during standing and walking on their return to earth. These problems include stamping gait, drifting off the intended path, step length variability, widening the base of support, changes in muscle activation patterns and increased ankle and knee joint movement variability. These problems have a proportional relationship with the duration of the flight. Several attempts are currently being made to develop adaptability training systems that can accelerate the astronaut’s locomotor adaptive capabilities to overcome these problems and return to normalcy. These attempts have largely utilized the visual sensory system through virtual reality (VR) setups to influence locomotor adaptation. A sensory system that is often ignored during locomotor adaptive training is the tactile sensory system. It is well established that tactile sensory feedback plays an important role in balance control not only during static tasks like standing but also during dynamic tasks like locomotion. Therefore it is intuitive that tactile sensation would also have a significant effect on locomotor adaptation. This is a critical area of research because it would provide a unique opportunity to affect locomotor adaptation in situations like astronauts returning from space flights. In this research study a series of experiments are proposed through which the effect of the tactile sensory system on locomotor adaptation will be investigated. In addition we will also test the combined effect of the visual and tactile sensory systems on locomotor adaptation.
Miniature In Vivo Surgical Robotics for Long-Term Space Flight
Dr. Shane Farritor, Unversity of Nebraska - Lincoln & Dmitry Oleynikov, University of Nebraska Medical Center
The project objective is to design, simulate, and test miniature in vivo robots to support surgery during long-duration space missions. The project explores the use of a new technique called Natural Orifice Transluminal Endoscopic Surgery (NOTES). There is evidence that the small robots developed through this project could be an important component of a medical system used in future planetary missions, but the benefits may also accrue to earth-based surgical teams and patients.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and Real-Time Location System (RTLS) Enhancement for Inventory Management and Logistics of Space Transportation Systems
Drs. Erick Jones & Lance Pérez, University of Nebraska - Lincoln
This project investigates the use of in order to streamline astronauts' inventory and logistics tracking onboard the International Space Station (ISS) and other missions. The proposed RFID-based RTLS will be integrated with and possibly enhance the existing Inventory Management System (IMS) tools used by NASA to keep track of inventory in space. The integration of these technologies will allow for a system that has the ability to make automatic inventory updates and can provide the location of misplaced equipment. RFID allows the inventory to be updated without requiring astronauts to individually scan items via a barcode system.
Differential Symbolic Execution
Drs. Matthew Dwyer and Sabastian Elbaum, University of Nebraska - Lincoln
This project investigates a new approach for reducing the cost of verifying and certifying high-confidence software. This approach, called differential symbolic execution, precisely calculates the effects of software program changes. Software designers spend a good deal of time upgrading their software by extending or adding new functionality as well as locating and eliminating bugs. Each time a change is applied to the software, the system must be re-validated to assess that no unintended behaviors are introduced.
Satellite Contaminant Research
Drs. Daniel Thompson and Ned Ianno, University of Nebraska - Lincoln & Drs. Scott Darveau and Christopher Exstrom, University of Nebraska - Kearney
The research will provide NASA with important quantitative information on the physical, chemical, and optical properties of photofixed volatile contaminant materials. These organic materials, found in coatings and adhesives, are known to "darken" under the sun's UV radiation and lessen the efficiency of satellite solar panels. NASA has a vested interest in reducing the effects of these contaminants, which ultimately disrupt spacecraft temperature control, leading directly to premature system failure.