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ASU students assist in launching nanosatellite into space


February 17, 2015

NASA has selected 14 small satellites from 12 states to fly as auxiliary payloads aboard rockets planned to launch in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The proposed "CubeSats" come from universities across the country, nonprofit organizations and NASA field centers.

Arizona State University was one of the institutions selected for sponsoring a satellite. AOSAT Download Full Image

The selections are part of the sixth round of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative. CubeSats are a class of research spacecraft called nanosatellites. The cube-shaped satellites vary in size from large coffee mugs to shoeboxes. The selected satellites are eligible for placement on a launch manifest after final negotiations, depending on the availability of a flight opportunity. The ASU satellite is expected to be flight ready by May 2016.

The ASU project is called the Asteroid Origins Satellite, or AOSAT I. It is a science laboratory that will be the world’s first CubeSat microgravity laboratory. It will enable a unique set of science and technology experiments to answer fundamental questions of how the solar system formed and to understand the surface dynamics of asteroids and comets. Once launched, it will be in space for at least eight months, if not longer, depending on the orbit.

“There is great and growing interest in exploring the native environment of asteroids,” said ASU professor Erik Asphaug. “Instead of a billion-dollar mission taking a decade to develop, we have decided to build a low cost ‘patch of asteroid’ in orbit, not as a substitute for an asteroid mission but as a testbed for validating – reducing the cost and risk – of mission concepts related to asteroid deflection, sample return and resource utilization.”

About the same size as a loaf of bread, AOSAT I was designed by a collaborative team centered in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE), headed by science principal investigator Asphaug and engineering principal investigator Jekan Thanga, a roboticist and an assistant professor. The team also includes researchers from partner institutions, including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), University of Maryland and University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

The ASU team’s roster boasts student talent as well. Jack Lightholder (computer science major) serves as the project engineer, and Viranga Perera (SESE doctoral student) is the project scientist. Between 2014 and 2017, a total of 32 undergraduates will be involved, along with 15 master’s students, three doctoral students and two postdocs. The students work as part of SpaceTREx (Space and Terrestrial Robotic Exploration Laboratory) and the Planetary Formation Lab, headed by Thanga and Asphaug, respectively.

“Talented students under direct supervision of faculty members work on many of the critical subsystems for AOSAT I. They are an integral part of the team. Many are multi-talented individuals, who I would have trouble distinguishing from professionals,” said Thanga.

The program is providing students and young professionals with the opportunity to participate from start to finish like never before in satellite missions. AOSAT I seeks to combine science and engineering to produce a whole line of CubeSat science laboratories in space. The potential applications spread beyond planetary sciences into life sciences and long duration human survival in space. According to Thanga, the hope is to spin off these capabilities into future partnerships with the student-led Sun Devil Satellite Laboratory and Dust Devils.

“One of the great things about AOSAT is that its life cycle is comparable to the tour-of-duty of a student at ASU. This makes it a highly tangible experience, where a student can design an experiment and fly it in space, and collect and analyze the data, all as part of a thesis project. This is way outside the box of standard missions, and will set the pace for student-led missions to come,” said Asphaug.

AOSAT I will be assembled in the Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV (ISTB 4) clean room, which provides state-of-the-art facilities for the design, construction, assembly and testing of small spacecraft. In parallel, the NewSpace Initiative, headed by professor Jim Bell, is coordinating efforts to rebuild ASU’s satellite ground station. A mission control center for AOSAT I and future ASU-led CubeSat missions will be housed on the ground floor of ISTB 4. This will enable ASU to join an elite club consisting of a handful of government institutions, private entities and universities in having complete control of the space mission in-house.

Nikki Cassis

marketing and communications director, School of Earth and Space Exploration

ASU research center aims for negative carbon emissions


February 17, 2015

What if we had the ability to not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere? If we could, where would we store it, and how could it be used in a positive way?

A new research center at Arizona State University, led by faculty in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, aims to show that capturing excess carbon dioxide from air is a viable strategy to stabilize and reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It also is a valuable resource that could be recycled to help power the production of synthetic fuels, as well as provide an essential food source for plants in greenhouses. engineering professor Klaus Lackner Download Full Image

This air capture technology developed by researchers at the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions transcends the limitations of traditional carbon reduction approaches by actually scrubbing carbon dioxide from the air.

“There is a limit to the amount of carbon dioxide we can have in the atmosphere; if the limit is surpassed, life becomes intolerable,” said Klaus Lackner, the center’s director and a new professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“Stabilizing our carbon emissions at net-zero is the only way to avoid crossing the secure threshold. But with global emissions rising, this effort is increasingly expensive and difficult,” Lackner said.

Achieving net-zero emissions requires new technologies, such as air capture, that can manage the carbon balance in the atmosphere by capturing and permanently storing carbon dioxide, resulting in negative carbon emissions.

The center’s novel air capture technology features a plastic resin that captures carbon dioxide when dry, and releases it when moist.

This discovery emerged from collaborative work between Lackner and the center’s executive director Allen Wright while they were at Columbia University and Global Research Technologies, the first privately held air capture company.

Paving the way for carbon recycling

Capturing carbon dioxide for disposal is just part of the agenda for the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions. The center’s researchers also are looking at ways to use what is captured to expand a sustainable economy through efforts like carbon recycling.

“Before we start capturing and storing carbon dioxide on the scale required for negative emissions, we need to prove that air capture is economically efficient,” said Christophe Jospe, the center’s chief strategist.

“Bootstrapping our technology to commercial endeavors where carbon dioxide is a valuable resource is a logical way to promote critical developments in this field,” said Jospe.

Greenhouses and algae-based biofuels which require less concentrated streams of carbon dioxide could enhance their yield using the carbon dioxide collected by the center’s air capture units – making them natural first candidates for efforts to optimize this technology for commercial use. The center also aims to supply carbon dioxide to manufacturers of synthetic fuels, a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels.

Teaming up for sustainable solutions

Lackner, Wright and Jospe moved to ASU from the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at Columbia University to take advantage of the climate and solar energy resources.

“Our technology performs best in dry climates and can be powered by renewable energy. The desert, with abundant solar power and a dry climate, is ideal for us to expand our work from the lab to an outside operating environment,” Wright said.

The Center for Negative Carbon Emissions plans to find its place within the larger sustainable solutions framework at ASU, alongside endeavors such as LightWorks and PlanetWorks, and the Global Institute of Sustainability.

“Technology advances do not happen in a vacuum, and there is world-class innovation in many facets of sustainability here at ASU,” Lackner said. “There is a natural connection between our work and research being done at ASU that can lead to excellent collaborations.”

“We are fortunate to have attracted Lackner and his team to ASU. I feel confident that other research efforts will gain synergy from the work and intellectual capabilities that they bring to the university,” said Edd Gibson, director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment.

The center has already attracted students through outreach with the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative (known as FURI), and the faculty members said they look forward to providing more student opportunities for research.

“We offer a holistic systems approach that allows students to get involved in diverse ways, including with the design and construction of various apparatuses, computational simulation, experimental work, automation of processes and political and economic analyses of the availability of this technology,” Jospe said.

Making a case for air capture

Along with pursuing advances in negative carbon emissions, the center’s researchers are eager to increase public awareness about the challenges surrounding the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the achievable solutions negative carbon emissions can provide.

“We are enthusiastic about engaging in the public debate, showing the consequences that different decisions will have and providing opportunities for decision-makers to shape desirable outcomes,” Jospe said.

For the center’s researchers, the urgency of the challenge is clear. “The longer we wait, the more carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere and the greater the risk of a catastrophic event becomes,” Lackner said.

“Air capture provides a way to clean up after ourselves while making an array of sustainable and carbon management solutions possible,” said Lackner. “But first, we must clearly demonstrate in the public domain that we can and should take up the case for air capture technology.”

To stay up to date with the latest advancements of the center, join the CNCE mailing list.

Written by Rosie Gochnour

Sharon Keeler

associate director, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

480-727-5618