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Students Design Innovative Spacecraft Inspection System at Stevens Institute of Technology

Mechanical Engineering students at Stevens have created a rotational system of propulsion for a Remotely Operable Inspection Craft (ROIC). This small, reusable system could easily be deployed to capture images of the exterior of spacecraft in order to assess damage suffered in liftoff or flight.

Hoboken, NJ, April 29, 2011 --( The next technology to keep astronauts safe is just around the corner at Stevens Institute of Technology, where a Mechanical Engineering Senior Design team of Regina Pynn, Tom Lakatos, Matthew Edwards, and Michael Dambakly, advised by Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Dr. Eui-Hyeok (EH) Yang, has created a rotational system of propulsion for a Remotely Operable Inspection Craft (ROIC). This small, reusable system could easily be deployed to capture images of the exterior of spacecraft in order to assess damage suffered in liftoff or flight. Able to remotely inspect damage to the craft, the ROIC supplants expensive, time-consuming, and dangerous methods, such as a spacewalk or rendezvous with another orbital satellite, such as the International Space Station (ISS).

ROIC would help to prevent a tragedy like the space shuttle Columbia disaster of 2003. After a free-flying piece of insulation foam struck the leading edge of the wing, scientists were unable to assess the extent of the damage. The ship disintegrated upon reentry to the atmosphere, resulting in the death of all seven crew members. The ROIC will be able to remotely inspect damage and alert the crew, with minimal expense and planning.

Tasked to design a system that allows the ROIC to rotate in space on three axes the team chose to use reaction wheels, proven technology used to position the Hubble Telescope and other satellites. Team member Regina Pynn explains the process: "If you use a power drill, you feel it try to move your arm because the motor is spinning, trying to create a counter-spin. In space, there is nothing to push against, so you can use that counter-spin to rotate a vehicle." The team came up with a system of three rings within the ball, each connected to a motor, which provides the angular momentum along a specific axis. This allows the ROIC to easily pivot to face the direction of suspected damage to a spacecraft.

The finalized rotational system comes in a surprising, yet convenient and inexpensive package: a hamster ball. The housing started out as a joke, but the design actually solved all of the team's problems, explains team member Michael. "It's cheap, sturdy, has holes for access, vents to cool electronics, and is easy to work with. Oddly enough, a hamster ball simply worked well!"

With this system implemented, further challenges needed to be overcome in order to demonstrate the craft's effectiveness. "The motors have to generate enough force against the rings to rotate this entire craft," team member Matthew explains. But, he notes, without a gravity-free environment, this is difficult to demonstrate. "Our hope is ultimately that this device will overcome friction and gravity to roll around on the floor," Matthew says. Overcoming the friction and gravity of Earth would easily satisfy the requirements for rotating in space.

"This proof-of-concept system is a pathfinder of future inspector microsatellite, which can be deployed to assess damage of the craft exterior, which supplants a spacewalk," says the team's advisor, Professor Yang. "The Senior Design team really did an excellent job in creating their own design and developing the control methods with minimal guidance."

The team says that Dr. Yang's NASA experience was essential for determining what was and was not feasible for their project. Other professors have offered help along the way: Dr. Cappelleri with the communications system and Dr. Zavlanos with the control system.

"I know that I would not have been able to do such amazing things without the help and assistance from both my teammates and the professors here at Stevens," Tom says. He views the project as another step forward in his fascination with space. "I have been interested in Space Systems ever since I was a child, learning about the space race and reading science fiction. It has always been a labor of love for me."

The team shares a passion for space systems engineering and attained real-world training in the field through Stevens' renowned Cooperative Education program, through which they worked at corporations and organizations such as Hamilton Sundstrand, NASA, and the United States Navy.

About the Department of Mechanical Engineering
The Department of Mechanical Engineering confidently addresses the challenges facing engineering now and into the future, yet remains true to the vision of the founders of Stevens Institute in 1870 as one of the first engineering schools in the nation. The department mission is to produce graduates with a broad-based foundation in fundamental engineering principles and liberal arts together with the depth of disciplinary knowledge needed to succeed in a career in mechanical engineering or a related field, including a wide variety of advanced technological and management careers. This is accomplished through a broad-based Core Curriculum of applied sciences, engineering sciences, design, management, and the humanities, coupled with a long-standing honor system. Learn more: visit

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Stevens Institute of Technology
Christine del Rosario

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