Sunday Science: UVM students work with NASA to design new techno - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Sunday Science: UVM students work with NASA to design new technology

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UVM is one of five schools working with NASA to develop its next generation of technology.

It's called the XHAB project, and its goal is to make the technology we need to study space lighter and easier to transport so that someday, we can send it deeper into our solar system. A team at UVM is working on an inflatable airlock.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: "So what is this?"

UVM Senior Joseph Maser: "So this is a model of the airlock. The real airlock is going to be nine feet in diameter and about 12 feet long."

An airlock is the compartment that allows astronauts to move between the inside of a space station and the vacuum of space. They're an essential part of space exploration.

And Joseph Maser and his team of fellow engineering students have spent the last year working with NASA to develop an inflatable airlock. Their design uses airbeams, fabric tubes that, when air is blown through them at high speed, act like a solid structure.

"That essentially holds the structure rigid so the astronauts can create the inner chamber to be void of air and actually exit the space station or ship that they might be in," Maser says.

Cat: "So basically you're trying to get astronauts to be able to transition between two radically different environments?"

Maser: "Exactly."

Current airlocks are metal, heavy and very expensive.

"On the space shuttle it was $10,000 per pound to get mass into orbit," says Russ Smith with NASA. "So anytime you can replace a heavy, massive metallic airlock with a lighter version, you're saving money, right? And it lets you use that mass budget for something else."

Smith says it's an ambitious project for these students. And right now, the concept of an inflatable airlock is in the very early stages.

The UVM model was built with materials you'd find in a hardware store: Four leafblowers, a winch and flexible duct work. The actual materials are too expensive, and we don't have zero gravity on Earth, so they had to improvise. The real materials tests will be up to future teams down the line.

Right now, the focus is on the concept. Airbeams have been around for a while, but they're usually unfolded, then inflated. This team is using their model to test whether they can inflate while they're folded and still be safe.

"When you compress fabrics they fold and twist and you won't be able to get air through them, or you create pockets of high pressure and you'll have blowouts or things like that," Maser explains.

A year's worth of work and hundreds of hours have paid off for this team. This week, they were able to present this model to NASA for the first time."Working with college students is always great because they're always kind-of out of the box," Smith says.

Maser says doing a project like this as an undergrad is a dream come true.

"They don't try to dumb anything down for you. They treat you just like one of their colleagues," he says. "You really felt like you were part of their team. That's a great feeling when you're growing up as a kid and wanting to be an engineer and NASA is like the end-all be-all of what that is."

Other members of Maser's team are Meghan Donovan, Juan Lattanzio, and John Draper. All of them are engineering majors.

And they have a few exciting events coming up!

They'll be presenting at the 4th Annual International Space Station Conference in Boston this July.

And they'll also be featured in an upcoming article in Smithsonian Magazine.

To learn more about the project, you can check out their video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdJCYoqWOeo

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