Published June 1, 2021
Europa, one of Jupiter’s 79 identified moons, is 472.1 million miles from Earth. NASA scientists believe that a salt-water ocean — 40 to 100 miles deep and thought to contain twice as much water as all of Earth’s oceans combined — is likely hidden beneath Europa’s icy surface.
A team of UB undergraduates this spring undertook the challenge of developing a module that can penetrate and move through Europa’s icy crust, and their work earned them second place in the team category in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) 2021 Regional Student Conference for Region 1.
The conference, which took place fully online April 9-10, was hosted by the Rutgers University AIAA student branch. Region 1 covers the northeastern region of the United States and Canada.
“The Region 1 conference had the largest participation of all the regions this year,” says Alexandra Nordmann, a mechanical engineering major who graduated this spring. The UB team was one of 11 in the category. “The judges mentioned that the team category was the closest call and they were down to the last minute trying to determine the winners.”
In addition to Nordmann, team members were Jack Gallagher, Olivia Garcia and Nathanael Ruppert. David Edwards, now a graduate student, was also involved in the project. The team was mentored by Javid Bayandor, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and director of UB’s CRashworthiness for Aerospace Structures and Hybrids (CRASH) Lab, and Ardash Rajguru of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“From week one of the project, the team worked as a very dynamic and cohesive unit, and welcomed challenges to investigate the unknown,” says Bayandor. “They inspired and helped each other throughout the term of the project and represented UB with utmost professionalism.”
“From this project, I realized that clearly presenting work is very important in order to garner support from potential sponsors in the competitive world of engineering,” says Ruppert, a mechanical engineering major set to graduate in spring 2022. “Additionally, I learned practical skills and gained knowledge on how to properly present an engineering project.”
Francine Battaglia, professor and chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, calls the UB team’s second-place finish “a fantastic accomplishment,” particularly given the high level of competition in the region.
“Participating in conferences like this provides students with the opportunity to learn about other research endeavors, exposing them to a wider community,” Battaglia says. “The conference also puts our students’ research in the limelight, reflecting our outstanding aerospace engineering program and exceptional faculty.”
The team’s design, called SPEAR (Subglacial ocean Probe Exploration, Access, and Research), is an exploration module composed of, among other elements, a tether bay that connects the module to the surface as it descends and a heating subsystem to help navigate the icy crust, with the goal of reaching Europa’s subglacial ocean. All of the elements work together to create a cryobot capable of exploring the depths of subsurface icy moons — not limited to Europa.
The team members originally undertook the project during fall 2020 as part of Bayador’s MAE 460 Space Mission Design course. The class of about 30 students split into four teams to take on different design challenges, which is how this group came together.
“After going through the different options for projects we could work on, our team arrived at the Europa/icy moon probe mission and began working on our solution,” says Gallagher, an aerospace engineering major who is graduating in fall 2021. “This course was probably my favorite out of all my years here at UB. It was really cool to get to work directly with an experienced engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on our project, and I learned a lot about mission design and its challenges.”
At the end of the fall semester, Bayandor gave the students on the Europa team the option of joining the CRASH lab and continuing work on the project.
“I enjoyed working with my team and when I was presented the opportunity to continue our research with CRASH Lab, I gladly took the opportunity,” says Garcia, a dual major in aerospace and mechanical engineering who will graduate in spring 2022. The team decided to enter the AIAA competition, and worked toward that during the spring semester.
While the team members are proud of their accomplishment of placing second in a highly competitive category, they say working and learning together was the real highlight.
“My favorite part about CRASH Lab is the people. Everyone at the lab, particularly Dr. Bayandor, is super bright and helpful, and you can usually always find someone willing to help you out if you’re stuck on something,” says Gallagher. “I can confidently say that without the feedback from CRASH Lab, there’s no way our presentation at AIAA would’ve been nearly as successful.”
The team plans to incorporate the feedback received from the judges and submit their paper to the 2022 AIAA Sci-Tech Forum, to be held in early January 2022.
Looking forward, Nordmann says: “These research areas provide an analytical model for future Europan missions and help bring icy moon and subsurface ocean exploration one step closer to reality.”