On Friday afternoon, a rocket will take off from a launchpad in Tanegashima, Japan, and head to the International Space Station carrying, among other things, a wireless leak detection system developed by graduate students at the University of Maine.
It will be the first hardware from UMaine, at least in recent memory, that will function in space for a long period of time, according to the UMaine researchers.
The prototype leak detection system, which was tested by NASA and in the inflatable lunar habitat and Wireless Sensing Laboratory on the Orono campus, could improve the safety of astronauts on the ISS and in other space activities, according to a news release from the university. Leaks causing air and heat loss are a major safety concern for astronauts.
Electrical engineering graduate students Casey Clark and Lonnie Laborite developed the prototype and performed safety tests of it at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The project was funded by a three-year, $100,000 NASA grant received by Ali Abedi, a UMaine professor of electrical and computer engineering, to help develop the technology through the Maine Space Grant Consortium in 2014. The project was one of five in the nation to receive funding from NASA–EPSCoR for research and technology development onboard ISS. Vincent Caccese, a UMaine mechanical engineering professor, also collaborated on the project.
Similar systems currently in use require astronauts to walk around with a device, scanning walls to detect leaks. The UMaine prototype offers a “set-it-and-forget-it” solution, says Clark, a native of Old Town, who graduated in May 2016 and now works as a ground segment engineer at SpaceX in Hawthorne, Calif.
Labonte, a Rumford native, graduates in December and will begin working for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland in January.
Once the rocket reaches the space station, astronauts will install the three identical boxes that will collect data for two intervals of about 30 hours, according to the university. While the hardware is in space, the UMaine team will be on standby until data collection is completed. NASA will send the information directly to UMaine from the space station beginning in late January or early February. Joel Castro, an electrical engineering Ph.D. student from Old Town, will process and analyze the data.
Once the prototypes are returned to Earth on a reentry vehicle, likely sometime next year, the UMaine team will study how well they held up and use that information to improve the next generation design.