Prairie View A&M And NASA Goddard Collaborate On Radiation Effects Research
When Alvin Boutte presented his graduate work at the 2010 National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) Aerospace Systems Conference in Los Angeles, Calif., he had no idea that he was about to connect with someone that would be instrumental in guiding his career. In attendance was Anthony Sanders from the Applied Engineering and Technology Directorate (AETD) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
The radiation engineering work that Boutte did at Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, Texas, fit the skills Sanders needed for the Radiation Effects and Analysis Group (REAG) of the Flight Data Systems & Radiation Effects Branch. The two met and a formal partnership developed with the Prairie View Center for Radiation Engineering and Science for Space Exploration (CRESSE).
For years, the REAG sought ways to draw students into the narrow field of radiation engineering. Prairie View A&M University is a historically black university, located between Austin and Houston, which was created in 1876 and is a member of the Texas A&M University System. CRESSE is funded by NASA through the University Research Center (URC) program. The URC program was established to build research infrastructure at minority serving schools relevant to NASA missions. Since Prairie View A&M also has a radiation effects program, the framework for a fruitful collaboration existed.
“The mission of CRESSE is to encourage, facilitate and mentor students – especially minority and underrepresented student groups – in research and education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We also focus on the interactions of ionizing radiation on humans, devices and materials,” stated Sanders, assistant chief for operations of the AETD electrical engineering division. “Our unique collaboration provides a great training ground for their interns to gather real work experience in this highly technical field.”
Boutte now leads several efforts within the REAG, including serving as a discipline engineer in the Integrated Design Center’s Mission Design and Instrument Design Labs, serving as the radiation engineering lead on the Search & Rescue/Global Positioning System instrument, as well as supporting several other major flight projects as a radiation engineer. In addition to those duties, Mr. Boutte is the branch safety representative and has made several excellent contributions to branch laboratory operational procedures and practices.
“As a Prairie View alumnus, I really enjoy returning to recruit and to encourage the students in CRESSE to continue exploring the field,” stated Boutte. “I grew up in the Houston area, and just like many of them, I was in this same program a few short years ago. I am able to help them see the possibilities of a career in this unique field.”
The work of the REAG involves characterizing and quantifying the effects of the space radiation environment on electronics, photonics, and materials. This usually includes both analysis and ground-based testing. The team gets involved early in the mission formulation stage, reviewing the mission parameters and developing an appropriate radiation-engineering program tailored for that project. The latter stages of project support include reviewing and approving electronic component lists, hardware designs, and performing ground-based radiation testing. The ground-based testing uses radioactive sources and particle accelerators to produce a proxy for the natural space radiation environment.
Radiation parts’ testing is extremely important to ensure reliable operation of all electronic components in the harsh space environment.
A spacecraft and all its instruments are bombarded with cosmic rays and solar particle events, which originate from supernovas, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections. In addition to those types of radiation, planets with a magnetic field, such as the Earth, have belts of trapped protons and electrons – we call them the Van Allen Belts after their discoverer, James Van Allen. In addition to electronic components and materials, humans in space can also be affected by space radiation. In fact, radiobiological effects are one of the biggest concerns for space exploration beyond low-earth orbit.
Students in the CRESSE program can intern at Goddard and may also have the opportunity to see radiation testing in person, which is often conducted at the Texas A&M Cyclotron Facility in College Station, Texas. This is convenient for Prairie View A&M students since it’s only a short drive from the main campus. A cyclotron is a circular particle accelerator in which charged particles are confined by a vertical magnetic field and accelerated by an alternating high-frequency applied voltage. It is used to simulate the space radiation environment within the practical limits of the accelerator hardware. The space radiation environment includes very high-energy particles, which are difficult if not impossible to replicate in ground-based equipment, so the comparison is not always one-to-one.
Particle accelerators are very costly and are located at just a handful of universities, hospitals, and government agencies. The Goddard researchers combine their testing needs before reserving time in one of these facilities, since they cost between $800 and $5,000 per hour and often operate on a 24-hour, seven-day per week basis. Hospitals that have accelerators use them for cancer research and to irradiate tumors in humans.
Prairie View intern Brandon Norman spent the last two summers working in the radiation effects lab and is proud to be graduating in 2014. “Dr. Wilkins and the team at Goddard helped me to transfer my knowledge of microelectronics to the radiation testing of similar components. It has been very challenging, but is rewarding to think that the microelectronics that I have tested may become part of a spacecraft orbiting a planet.”
The REAG considers many factors when assessing electronic components for mission managers: are there either in-flight or ground-based data on this part already; what level of radiation can the project live with and still conduct the science mission; should the project choose different parts to reduce the impact of radiation effects but not eliminate them; what non-destructive consequences can they live with? If the project must have specially designed radiation-tolerant parts, they are very expensive and can take a year or more to arrive after the order is placed.
Radiation effects engineering is multi-disciplinary field requiring extensive knowledge of physics, electrical engineering, materials engineering and systems engineering. The CRESSE center at Prairie View wants to structure their program to better meet the needs of the aerospace industry. This summer, the lab hosted the director of CRESSE along with an intern.
“Working directly with the radiation effects researchers here at Goddard will help us tailor the program at Prairie View and allow students to better understand what the real world challenges are in this field,” stated Dr. Richard Wilkins, director of the CRESSE program, upon spending a month at NASA Goddard, immersed in the workings of the lab.
The branch has performed unique reviews for many Goddard and other missions including the Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite-II (ICESat-II) project, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) project; the European ExoMars project with the NASA Goddard Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA) instrument, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission, and the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission just to name a few.
“Although we have plenty of radiation data on components used in the past, technology is always evolving and it is critical that we maintain a robust staff of civil servants and support contractors to address radiation effects issues with new technologies such as memory devices, field programmable gate arrays, microprocessors, power distribution electronics, and application-specific integrated circuits,” stated Jonathan Pellish, associate head of the Flight Data Systems and Radiation Effects Branch at Goddard. “This partnership with CRESSE allows us develop skilled researchers that will help NASA solve critical issues so that we can be ready for future space flight missions.”
Goddard’s partnership with Prairie View A&M was triggered by the annual NSBE Aerospace Systems Conference whose purpose is to foster informal networking and create opportunities to develop collaborations among participants. This event enables companies, agencies, research labs, entrepreneurs, suppliers, and other related entities to showcase their technologies, products, business enterprises, and other information to facilitate information exchange within this extensive conference network. It is also an ideal forum for employers to seek out experienced engineers for new career opportunities.
There are 106 Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the U.S. according to the White House Initiative listing as of July 17, 2013.