2022 News September 2022

Tiny, precise device could help spacecrafts land safely

A NASA-funded team led by SMU researchers think that their small, lightweight device developed to measure spaceship velocity will improve the odds of successful landings on Mars and other planets.
Smaller, they say, is better in space.
The optical microresonator built by the team is only 2 millimeters in length, compared to the velocity-monitoring tool most commonly used on spacecraft – the Fabry-Perot interferometer – which can be as long as 500 millimeters. NASA and other space agencies may be able to use the microresonator to get an accurate, quick measurement of how fast a spaceship is moving in a specific direction.
The first proof-of-concept results have been published in AAIA Journal.
“Every gram of a device makes a huge difference in how much fuel I will have to have on a spacecraft and how many other items I can include as payload on that spacecraft,” says SMU’s Volkan Ötügen, one of the creators of the optical microresonator.
Ötügen is senior associate dean of the Mechanical Engineering Department in SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering and director of the SMU MicroSensor Laboratory. The device he and other researchers built uses a phenomenon known as “whispering gallery mode.”
A spacecraft’s velocity is a key measurement during its descent, because the time between when a spaceship enters a planet’s atmosphere and the time it lands is usually only minutes at most. And costly accidents like the crashed European spacecraft Schiaparelli on Mars underscore how quickly a mission can go wrong when the spacecraft is given wrong information.
Just 40 percent of Mars missions – launched by any space agency – actually land there successfully.
Read more at SMU Research.

2019 August 2019 News

‘Titans in a Jar’ could answer key questions ahead of NASA’s Dragonfly mission

SMU researchers could help determine if Saturn’s icy moon – Titan – has ever been home to life long before NASA completes an exploratory visit to its surface by a drone helicopter.
NASA announced in late June that its Dragonfly mission would launch toward Saturn’s largest moon in 2026, expecting to arrive in 2034. The goal of the mission is to use a rotorcraft to visit dozens of promising locations on Titan to investigate the chemistry, atmospheric and surface properties that could lead to life.
SMU was awarded a $195,000 grant, also in June, to reproduce what is happening on Titan in a laboratory setting. The project, funded by the Houston-based Welch Foundation, will be led by Tom Runčevski, an assistant professor of chemistry in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. SMU graduate student Christina McConville also was awarded a fellowship by the Texas Space Grant Consortium to help with the project.
Before the rotorcraft lands on Titan, chemists from SMU will be recreating the conditions on Titan in multiple glass cylinders — each the size of a needle top — so they can learn about what kind of chemical structures could form on Titan’s surface. The knowledge on these structures can ultimately help assess the possibility of life on Titan — whether in the past, present or future.
Read more at SMU Research.