Purdue in Space

Purdue Space Research Highlights

Many Purdue professors and their students have been actively involved in research that furthers our reach in space while improving lives on Earth. Below is just a sample of their research. Visit the Purdue newsroom to learn more about our current research across the University.

Purdue is Space. We develop space shuttles and astronauts. Our students work at NASA. Twenty-three of our astronauts have been to space. We have walked on the Moon and the International Space Station. We will soon walk on Mars.

Hurricane forecasting

James Garrison, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics with courtesy appointments in electrical and computer engineering, and environmental and ecological engineering, is on the science team for the recently launched NASA mission Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS). CYGNSS, led by the University of Michigan, is a constellation of eight small satellite “observatories” each with instruments to receive both direct and reflected signals from global positioning system (GPS) satellites. The direct signals pinpoint CYGNSS observatory positions while the reflected signals respond to ocean surface roughness, from which ocean surface wind speed can be retrieved. The dense and frequent coverage of the ocean surface provided by the constellation will provide new data to improve hurricane forecasts. This technique employed on CYGNSS was invented by Garrison and his colleague Steve Katzberg in the 1990s and first demonstrated by them on aircraft experiments. In his role on the science team, Garrison applies new algorithms for extraction of ocean surface wind fields and, through a collaborative project with NOAA, the assimilation of these new observations into their hurricane forecast models.

Soil moisture

James Garrison, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics with courtesy appointments in electrical and computer engineering, and environmental and ecological engineering, is the principal investigator on a NASA funded project to develop a new instrument for the remote sensing of sub-surface “Root zone” soil moisture. This is a critical measurement for understanding the water cycle and predicting agricultural production, but it cannot be made using exiting microwave technology. The innovative approach being studied by Garrison utilizes the reflection of UHF (or “P-band”) communication satellite signals off of the soil. This allows the use of a lower frequency (230-270 MHz) than what is currently possible with satellite instruments, due to the antenna size and spectrum allocation. This three-year project covers the construction of a prototype instrument for flight on a NASA aircraft and a week-long experimental campaign, which took place in October 2016, at the Little Washita watershed near Lawton, Oklahoma. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is a collaborator and responsible for the design of antennas and analog electronics. Harris Corporation is the subcontractor responsible for the digital electronics. Garrison and his students are presently analyzing the results from the Little Washita experiment and studying the feasibility of a satellite instrument.

Suborbital research

Steven Collicott, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, has testified before a U.S. Senate committee about the merits of private-sector space enterprise, particularly suborbital research. He has extensive zero-gravity research experience, with dozens of experiments on NASA aircraft and several suborbital rocket experiments, and has earned a doctorate in aeronautical and astronautical engineering. He designed a major portion of an experiment that flew on the international space station in 2006 and 2007 and is principal investigator on the Fluids Education Experiment scheduled to launch to the space station next year. He has been named chair of the Suborbital Applications Researchers Group of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and serves on the Science and Technology Advisory Panel for the Center for Advancement of Science in Space, which is the organization created recently by Congress to operate portions of the International Space Station as a national laboratory.

Comet images

Jay Melosh, a distinguished professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, physics, and aerospace engineering, has served as a member of the science team for three NASA space missions to image comets and examine their composition and behavior, and one lunar gravity mission. Melosh is an expert on impact cratering, planetary tectonics and the physics of earthquakes and landslides and has studied the exchange of microorganisms between the terrestrial planets. He is a co-author of two space-related National Research Council reports. The first, the 2010 report "Defending Planet Earth," explores the feasibility of detecting all Earth-crossing asteroids down to a diameter of 140 meters, or about one-tenth of a mile, and of ways to mitigate their hazard. The second, the 2012 report "NASA Space Technology Roadmaps and Priorities," examines and prioritizes NASA's entire program for new technology development. He also is co-creator of a calculator used by governmental agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, NASA and the U.S. Air Force, to estimate the potential damage a comet or asteroid would cause if it hit the Earth. The calculator, Impact: Earth!, allows anyone to calculate potential comet or asteroid damage based on the object's mass.

Future robots

Purdue researchers are creating motors that push the envelope of theoretical performance limits for future robots. The research, funded with two NASA grants, is led by Scott Sudhoff and Steven Pekarek, both professors of electrical and computer engineering. The effort is part of the National Robotics Initiative, or NRI, a federal effort to help engage and train the next generation of robot designers.

Hypersonic vehicles

Steven Schneider, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, has developed and operates the nation's newest wind tunnel capable of running quietly at "hypersonic" speeds, which is critical for collecting data to show precisely how air flows over a vehicle's surface in flight. He and his students are involved in research to better predict "boundary-layer transition" for hypersonic vehicles under development. He also advises the U.S. Department of Defense and NASA on various hypersonic-transition issues. Schneider aided in estimating transition for the first shuttle flight following the Columbia disaster in 2003. He was part of the group whose advice led to astronaut Steve Robinson's dramatic spacewalk on Aug. 3, 2005, to remove "gap filler" protruding from the belly of the shuttle Discovery. Astronauts had never ventured to the underside of a shuttle during orbit or performed a safety-oriented repair during a mission.

Space biology

Marshall Porterfield, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering and biomedical engineering, was named director of NASA's Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division in 2012. He has taken a leave of absence while serving in the post and oversees four program areas: fundamental space biology, physical sciences, human research programs and the international space station laboratory. He also acts as a liaison between NASA and the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Space history

Michael G. Smith, an associate professor of history, studies and teaches the history of the Space Age. His book, "Rockets and Revolution: A Cultural History of Early Spaceflight," was published by University of Nebraska Press.

Mars mission

Research by James Longuski, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and his students has been critical to a proposed privately financed mission to Mars. The Inspiration Mars mission was motivated by a rare 501-day free-return opportunity that was discovered in 1998 by Longuski and his then-student Moonish Patel. Longuski and two of his doctoral students, Kyle Hughes and Peter Edelman, have been working on studying the uniqueness of the Inspiration Mars 2018 opportunity as well as potential backup trajectories to give the mission a second chance if the 2018 launch date is missed.

Interplanetary superhighway

Kathleen Howell, Hsu Lo Professor of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, has worked with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to create an "interplanetary superhighway," a method that enables spacecraft to travel through the solar system by taking advantage of the gravitational attractions of the sun and planets. The technique provides pathways that can slash the amount of fuel used by spacecraft. Howell and a graduate student designed such a pathway for NASA's low-fuel Genesis probe, launched in 2001 to collect samples of solar wind and return them to Earth. Her students have benefited from interaction with NASA and industry teams, gaining exposure to engineering strategies and contributing to solutions necessary to meet the science objectives of missions.

Space communication

Barrett Caldwell, a professor of industrial engineering and the director of the Indiana Space Consortium, works with NASA on communication processes and safety protocols. Caldwell helps NASA identify technology to give researchers on different planetary surfaces quicker ways of dealing with data and sending it back to ground control centers. He also worked with students on the VOSS interactive solar system project in Discovery Park.

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