Graduate student Charles Ward adjusts the pressure in the atomic oxygen chamber in the Space Environments Laboratory. Bryce Aston | Mustang News

Tucked away on a corner of campus, in an echoey, high-ceilinged room filled with a jumble of vacuum chambers, a box full of empty drink cans sits atop a shelf. This is where aerospace engineering associate professor Kira Abercromby beelines when describing her favorite experiment. She holds a painted can with her eyes shining behind a pair of safety glasses and her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail as she explains how she helps students make the cans explode.

Abercromby explains that the cans’ wall thickness is proportionate to that of a rocket body. And so, with the help of some glue, a bike valve, hydrogen, oxygen and rocket igniters, she and her students simulate the explosion of rockets in space.

“We basically try to break everything in these labs so that you don’t do it when you’re building,” Abercromby said, laughing.

Abercromby and her colleague aerospace engineering assistant professor Amelia Greig are key figures in one of the most unique courses in the department. The aerospace engineering degree is split into astronautics and aeronautics concentrations, and Space Environments (AERO 353 and 354) is an undergraduate course specific to the astronautics concentration. Through lecture and lab components split into two separate 10-week courses, Greig and Abercromby introduce students to the unique environments and environmental factors spacecrafts encounter in space.

The course is unlike almost any other in the country; as far as Abercromby knows, only the Air Force Academy offers an undergraduate lecture equivalent, but it does not include the lab component that makes Cal Poly’s program so special.

What are ‘space environments’?

As Greig describes it, the course’s purpose is to help students begin to think about a world very different from our own. Factors such as low pressure environments in space can lead to material degrading and outgassing. Radiation and space debris can damage a spacecraft’s body if it is not protected. These factors are key to designing spacecraft and planning missions, but are easy to forget if students are not taught them specifically.

“Because we live on the surface of the Earth, it’s what we’re used to and you sort of forget how different it can be in space and how damaging it can be for things that can survive perfectly on the surface,” Greig said.

Abercromby and Greig break the lab component down into six main topics: the launch environment, generic vacuums, neutral areas – or areas where spacecraft encounter disassociated, or atomic, oxygen that is harsher than the O₂ we breathe – space debris, radiation and plasma. Each area has specific labs associated with it. The actual laboratory includes eight vacuum chambers, according to Greig. Two of these – affectionately dubbed ‘Thing One’ and ‘Thing Two’ by Abercromby – host most of the student labs for the course. The other six chambers are largely used by undergraduate and graduate researchers under Abercromby and Greig’s supervision and direction. Projects range from testing miniaturized ion propulsion systems to irradiating materials in the atomic oxygen chamber.

Bringing Space Environments to Cal Poly

When Abercromby applied to Cal Poly 10 years ago, there was no equivalent to Space Environments, but it was part of her vision.

Luckily for her and for the department, Tina Jameson was applying at the same time.

Coincidentally, both Abercromby and Jameson brought up their interest in starting a space environments course during their interviews. Once they were both hired, they were introduced and began planning the course.

Jameson has since moved on to work in industry at Space Systems Loral in Palo Alto, California, but Abercromby said she could not have built the course alone. With complementing expertise – Jameson is a propulsion expert and Abercromby is a space debris expert – and brimming with passion, the two began to campaign for their course.

Aerospace Engineering Department Chair David Marshall said the biggest obstacle to instituting the course was communicating with the industry. The department needed to know that the industry would have reasonable expectations of students and that the course would be valuable to the industry looking to hire their students.

Through consulting an independent industrial advisory board, it became clear that it would be.

“They loved it … Essentially, they were hiring Cal Poly aerospace [engineering] students into space jobs despite the fact that they didn’t have as many space-specific classes as [the companies] would have liked,” Marshall said. “With the space environments lab, they were really excited because no other undergrads that they had seen would have that kind of experience.”

According to Abercromby, the early days of the course were the professors’ equivalent of Learn by Doing for themselves. Much of their equipment had been donated by industry and some of it was in less-than-perfect condition.

For example, the thermal vacuum chamber had not been used for 15 years prior to donation and did not have an instruction manual. Another piece of equipment, a hulking chamber named ‘Big Green’ for its green base, Abercromby described as “Frankensteined together.”

As Abercromby tells it, the first year was a constant dance of testing labs, changing the aspects that did not work and drawing from student experiences to further develop the material.

“Our students were super helpful all the time, but especially in the beginning, you know, like, understanding it’s the first time we had done it,” Abercromby said. “They were just so happy to have a space-specific lab that we could have done anything and they would have been like, ‘What do we do next?’”

Bringing space environments to industry

Included in this early group of students were David Knapp and Max Glicklin. Knapp and Glicklin were in the first class of students to experience Cal Poly’s Space Environments lab, and both completed masters theses in the laboratory. Through their theses, both built equipment that students still use in the laboratory today – Knapp, a device to create plasma for ion thrusters, and Glicklin, an atomic oxygen chamber, proudly named the Minimum Atmospheric Experimentation chamber, or MAX.

The atomic oxygen chamber at Cal Poly is one of 12 in the country, and the only at an undergraduate university. Bryce Aston | Mustang News

Knapp and Glicklin now run the Space Environmental Test Facility at Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, California. In their roles as senior research scientists, they do new material development testing for clients.

Both Knapp and Glicklin are clear on the role the space environments laboratory played in their lives: they would not be where they are now without it. The lab gave them both the specific knowledge of space environments and the confidence and determination needed in industry.

Knapp said the early days in the space environments laboratory were vital. The moments where equipment broke or labs failed were an important taste of what “real life” would hold for him.

“Even though it was frustrating sometimes … being that guinea pig class and kind of working the kinks out of the system, so to speak, that’s really what we do,” Knapp said. “That’s what happens in the real world.”

Glicklin agreed with this, saying his quick ascension in the world of space environments would not have happened without the course.

“Without that laboratory, it would have been very difficult to prove that I had the knowledge base needed to get into the space environments industry at such a high level so fast, that I didn’t have to learn from scratch, when entering industry, about space environments,” Glicklin said.

The future of Space Environments at Cal Poly

The immediate future of Space Environments is one of upgrades. Greig and Abercromby recently secured a $100 thousand grant from department funds for improvements to the laboratory’s equipment.

The upgrade will be both a facelift and a unification of the equipment. The chambers are beginning to fail after years, and in some cases decades, of use. In replacing worn-down parts, Abercromby and Greig will also have the chance to make the systems for each vacuum interchangeable. This will allow for more versatility in each individual machine and for backups when things go wrong. If a chamber is not working, equipment and systems would be transferable to working chambers.

However, in the long-term, Greig and Abercromby have larger goals. Both hope to continue to build recognition for their course and Cal Poly’s aerospace engineering program in industry. In the eight years since the course’s inception, eight Cal Poly students have gone into space environmental industry positions, a number Greig said is “phenomenal.”

Greig also has a personal dream of incorporating a full space simulation facility into the laboratory. She is currently looking for funding to refurbish a large, recently donated chamber. The chamber, which is 5 feet in diameter and 6 feet long, is large enough that larger satellites and deployable devices can be tested in it. Greig also hopes to equip the chamber with a thermal shroud that would allow them to simulate the extreme temperatures of space, and a solar simulator that would allow tests for the effects of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, along with other diagnostic tools.

Such a full space simulation facility would be available for both student research and classes as well as for industry to come in to do research.

Currently, industry does some testing in the Space Environments laboratory, and Abercromby would like to continue to develop that relationship. While large companies like SpaceX and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory currently conduct some research at Cal Poly with student help, Abercromby wants to develop a system to charge companies for using the facilities.

Abercromby said the atomic oxygen chamber is of particular interest to many companies because atomic oxygen testing is generally very expensive. The atomic oxygen chamber at Cal Poly is one of 12 in the country according to Glicklin, and Greig only knows of one other university that has atomic oxygen testing facilities, which is in Japan. Abercromby said once they do more testing to determine what tests can be offered in the facility, they will be able to start charging companies to use the chamber.

Back in the laboratory, Abercromby smiles indulgently as she discusses the labs she, Jameson and now Greig worked so hard to bring to Cal Poly. Though she loves the space debris experiment with the can, she discusses the other labs with passion. It is like listening to a mother try to choose her favorite child.

“This is going to sound so cheesy,” Abercromby said. “But I love all the labs we do. Because they all have these areas that we’ve taught them, and to actually get them to put it together and see … it’s really cool to see that.”

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