Next up for Rowan engineering: Outer space
In space, no one can hear you scream when your battery dies. Out there, options are pretty limited. "In space, there are very limited power sources. You either have to carry your batteries with you - which is in most cases impractical - or by and large in space, you would rely on light, on sun," said Robi Polikar, head of the electrical and computer engineering department at Rowan University.
In space, no one can hear you scream when your battery dies.
Out there, options are pretty limited.
"In space, there are very limited power sources. You either have to carry your batteries with you - which is in most cases impractical - or by and large in space, you would rely on light, on sun," said Robi Polikar, head of the electrical and computer engineering department at Rowan University.
And there are all those other issues to think about when it comes to electronics: the physical size of the equipment (the larger and heavier, the harder to get into space), the harsh environment (temperature, cosmic radiation), the lack of room for error.
A group of Rowan engineers is hoping a new type of memory technology, memristors, can address some of those concerns, providing stability, speed, and energy efficiency compared with current memory systems.
Last month, the Rowan professors learned they had been accepted by a NASA program that sends softball-size nanosatellites into space for educational and research purposes. The Rowan proposal was one of 20 selected from 12 states in the seventh round of NASA's CubeSat Launch Initiative. The NASA program does not provide additional funding - but, as Polikar noted, getting to space is the most expensive part.
Rowan's project is the first CubeSat project from New Jersey, NASA said. Other groups accepted in the latest round of launches include NASA's own Jet Propulsion Laboratory partnership with California Institute of Technology, MIT Lincoln Labs, and the U.S. Naval Academy.
Sangho Shin, the Rowan professor spearheading the project, has worked with memristors and was watching the field grow. The NASA program, he realized, was an opportunity to test what is still an emerging technology in one of the most extreme environments possible.
"There's a lot of work that's already being done on memristor applications - how it works, how it can be integrated into other systems - but there isn't much work or effort in finding out how this system would work in an outer-space application," Shin said. "We always want to think about, well, what's next? And then, when you think what's next, you can either think of what's next in terms of a small, incremental step - what else can we do to make one small improvement - or you can think much larger. No pun intended: Globally."
Its name coming from the words memory and resistor, the memristor was first theorized in 1971 and produced in 2008. By storing information in terms of resistance and not charge or other sources, memristors should be more robust than current technologies.
A strong magnet can wipe a computer's memory, and cosmic radiation can wreak havoc on unshielded electronics in space.
"You have this energetic particle that strikes your integrated circuit, and it dislodges electrons and changes 1s to 0s and 0s to 1s, so it messes things up," said John L. Schmalzel, a Rowan professor for more than 20 years and a member of Shin's satellite team.
Memristors shouldn't have that problem.
"If you can move away from something that's charge-based, especially if you work in a pretty tough environment like space . . . that would be an advantage," said Jonathan E Spanier, a materials science and engineering professor at Drexel University who is unaffiliated with the Rowan project but has done work with memristors.
"Memristors are very promising," he said.
Shin and Schmalzel, along with Rowan professor Robert R. Krchnavek, will enlist the help of Rowan students to design and build the 4-inch-by-4-inch nanosatellite, which is scheduled for a March 2018 launch.
At its core, the Rowan project will run two different circuits, one with a memristor and one with current memory technology.
"There's a high chance for those two systems being attacked by the cosmic rays as well as the outer space environment, and we just basically want to monitor how much defect or failure was caused by the cosmic-ray attacks," Shin said. "So we just want to count the number of faults or errors with the two systems, and basically we want to compare."
NASA's acceptance means Shin and his team will now have to design the test circuits, working with students as early as this fall in the problem-based clinics that are a hallmark of Rowan's engineering program.
Rowan students also will work on the other supporting systems, such as figuring out how to send data from the satellite down to Earth for collection and analysis.
It's not a simple task, especially as each component adds weight to the one-quart cube, which must weigh (on Earth) less than three pounds total. The satellite should last about a year in space, so the system must be precisely designed.
Krchnavek cited the problem of finding the balance between the communication and stability systems. The antenna structure can be very simple if it is always aimed toward Earth, but that requires a potentially heavy system to keep the satellite stable; alternatively, the satellite can be allowed to tumble, but that complicates the communication.
"From a scientific point of view, the most important thing is to see how memristors behave in space. That's what we're trying to answer. Once you say that's a good thing to try to understand, because it hasn't been done, then the next thing is, it becomes a system problem," Krchnavek said.
"How are you going to best achieve that, under the restrictions of the weight, the power you need, the physical size, the ability to take the vacuum, cold, the G forces?"
The Rowan professors will have two years to figure it out, essentially from scratch. They're excited, but they can't celebrate yet.
The hard work is yet to come.
"Getting the proposal accepted is one thing, but successfully completing the project is really what's most important, right? Because people are going to judge you based on what you're able to accomplish, what you're able to deliver," Polikar said.
"We have to do it, and we have to show that we can do it," he said. "That's, of course, our challenge - that we are more than happy and excited to take on."
firstname.lastname@example.org 856-779-3220 @elaijuh www.philly.com/campusinq