UNT Electrical Engineering Students Take Top Awards at NASA Spring 2016 Design Challenge

A team from the University of North Texas (UNT) College of Engineering earned several awards from the spring 2016 Texas Space Grant Consortium Design Challenge (TSGC), held April 25 in Houston, Texas.

Sponsored by NASA and administered by the Texas Space Grant Consortium, the TSGC Design Challenge is a unique academic experience offering undergraduate students an opportunity to design, fabricate, and test a solution to a topic of importance to NASA and its mission.

UNT’s Team Iron Iris won all the awards for Semester I (a designation for those teams competing for the first time in the TSGC challenge): Audience Forum Favorite, Best Oral Presentation, Best Poster, and Top Overall Design Team.

Team Iron Iris members are Dasan Washburn, Taylor Muskopf, Michael Thomason, and Stephen Morris with faculty advisor Dr. Kamesh Namuduri, Department of Electrical Engineering, and mentor Dr. Hum Mandell, University of Texas Center for Space Research.

Washburn said, “We got to work with a NASA mentor who had 40 years of experience. It was a great honor to work with him. We learned a lot about the process of research and we got some great contacts from him. This showcase was a great experience because we got to see engineering projects from eight other schools. We got to meet NASA representatives; it was great talking to them. (The competition) was a great presentation skills builder.

Muskopf said, “It was the first time I ever presented for an audience of professional engineers in the field of interest to me – aerospace. We gave our presentation at the showcase, and then we also gave it for one of our classes. It was a great experience to have that presentation experience under your belt.”

Morris said, “It was a great experience. We got to use some of the engineering skills that we learned at the school. As a student, it helped me to know how to prepare better for my classes and how to implement things I learned.”

Thomason said, “It was a lot of hard work at times, but we got through it. We learned a lot from it, and it was worth it in the end.”

Muskopf said, “We saw an opportunity to advance our skills and apply our knowledge.”

The team members, all Electrical Engineering undergraduate students, said they first learned about the competition from Namuduri, who presented the research project ideas during a class. The team had been in previous classes with each other, but they had not worked on a project together. The topic the team chose for their project was “Mars Habitat and Initial Settlement Village.”

“The Mars habitat project really resonated with us, and Dr. Namuduri became our advisor,” Washburn said.

According to Washburn, the topic was very broad in scope, requiring many engineering disciplines. Because the team was comprised of four electrical engineers, we asked the design board and our mentor if we could focus on ground based communications, which they approved,” Washburn said. “So the scope of our work was ground-to-ground based communications on Mars. Our goal for Semester I was to use radio frequency propagation simulation and analysis to find optimal sites on Mars where a potential Martian habitat could be located. Communications is, of course, just one of many criteria that will be used to locate a Martian habitat, but we think it is one of the most critical.”

According to Washburn, the project’s goal required several objectives: understanding the RF environment on Mars, researching existing Martian habitat proposals, selecting a communications model, performing RF propagation simulations, and comparing the results against other publications. “The most difficult of these objectives was the software simulation,” Washburn said. “We had to find software able to meet our goal, learn it, and understand the results. In a nutshell, the entire software simulation process consisted of selecting four sites, locating Martian topographical maps for those sites in a proper resolution, converting them to a compatible format for importation into the RF simulation software, performing many RF analysis steps to narrow down the best location, and evaluating the results.”

Martian topographical maps were obtained from the U.S. Geological Survey, namely the Mars Global Surveyor's MOLA (Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter) data set. “New Mexico State University is, as far as we know, the only other University that has done a similar study to ours,” Washburn said. “Their 2004 IEEE Aerospace Conference Proceedings publication titled ‘Modeling the Radio Frequency Environment of Mars for Future Wireless, Networked Rovers and Sensor Webs’ provided us with prior work with which to compare our results. Two of our sites were selected from regions they studied, Gusev Crater and Hematite. We also selected two sites from a top ten list from the Mars 2020 Landing Site Workshop (2015), a joint NASA project looking at potential rover landing sites. We chose their #2 Columbia Hills and #5 SW Melas Basin recommendations.”

The team used an open source product called SPLAT! (Signal Propagation, Loss, And Terrain) developed by John Magliacane, KD2BD. “Although it was open source, it was designed for terrestrial maps,” Washburn said. “We had to read through part of the author's C code to understand what needed to be done to convert the Martian data sets, and three of our team members had to learn Linux. Another suite of tools that was crucial to our project was ISIS3 (Integrated Software for Imagers and Spectrometers) from the U.S. Geological Survey, funded by NASA. Without the tools provided by this software, we would have had to write several of our own conversion utilities.”

Washburn added, “We could not have completed our work without assistance from our mentor, Dr. Humboldt C. Mandell, Jr. at the Center for Space Research, UT Austin. We wish to especially thank him for his advice, contacts, expertise, and experience. The conclusion we reached with our research is that RF analysis on topographical data of Mars is an effective way to locate ground-to-ground communication optimized sites for potential Martian habitats.”

At least two team members plan to return for the second semester of the project, which will focus on the hardware simulation and modeling. “From the beginning, we wanted to do a mobile rover platform containing a communication system. For the second semester, we will focus on developing a rover and a landing platform.”

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