Space Hardware Club developing shield for NASA’s balloon X-ray telescopes

Adam Bower

Adam Bower, Space Hardware Club president and the project’s student principal investigator and program manager, makes a point during the team mission announcement meeting on Tuesday, July 5.

Michael Mercier | UAH

Protecting NASA’s balloon-born X-ray telescopes from stray X-rays that can spoil their view is the focus of a new project by the Space Hardware Club (SHC) at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) that’s being fully funded by $50,000 from NASA’s Undergraduate Student Instrument Project.

Stray X-rays can spoil an X-ray telescope’s view because, with more energy at higher frequency than visible light, they can penetrate metal and other materials and interfere with optics.

One solution is to encase the telescope in lead, which is not an ideal solution from a weight and environmental standpoint, says Adam Bower, SHC president and the project’s student principal investigator and program manager. Another solution is to knowingly allow the ambient or background X-rays to penetrate the telescope’s body and measure when this occurs.

That second solution is the basis for the active shielding X-ray detection sensor system that the SHC team will design and build, as well as performing its initial testing.

When we know a background X-ray penetrated the body of the telescope and hit the optical sensor, this is a coincidence of the X-ray particle, Bower says. In order to know when X-rays came from the intended celestial object being studied, we look for the anti-coincidences. This gives us a way to solely measure X-rays from the intended celestial object.

SHC will be designing the geometry of the anti-coincidence shield, the electronics for the X-ray data system, the power system, data storage, mechanical structure, flight software and environmental control systems. SHC will manufacture the anti-coincidence shielding and mechanical enclosure at UAH and assemble the entire system.

Dr. Francis Wessling, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, is SHC’s advisor and the faculty principal investigator for the project.

Dr. Jessica Gaskin from the National Space Science Technology Center (NSSTC), Dr. Albert Shih and Dr. Steven Christe from Goddard Space Flight Center are advising from NASA.

We have these three NASA mentors who work on the X-ray telescope our system is intended for who are helping us along the way, Bower says.

The project will be completed in 18 months, with the big test flight in New Mexico in August 2017.

The system we are building is going to be tested as a secondary payload on a zero-pressure balloon in New Mexico that is being provided by NASA to ensure the design functions as intended, Bower says. We have started the technology research needed before initial design work can begin, and we will have our preliminary design done by January of next year.

Our big test will be to validate our system on a balloon gondola separate from the telescope. We will be operationally ready by next July for integration tests with the balloon gondola.

Initial testing will be done locally.

Testing our system with X-rays can be dangerous, and that will take place at the NSSTC or off-campus at Marshall Space Flight Center, Bower says.

Initially proposed by UAH students, the project will be managed and designed by students from SHC.

This is a very multidisciplinary project with members from different engineering and physics departments, Bower says. The team is made up of a diverse group of international and U.S. students.

Eighteen SHC members work on the project. Besides Bower:

  • Jared Fuchs is the systems engineer;
  • Chloe McFadden is the budget analyst and environmental control systems lead;
  • Matt Haskell is the mechanical lead;
  • Elena Pradhan is the electrical lead:
  • Samantha Johnson is the sensor lead;
  • Chris Helmerich is the flight software lead; and
  • Kyle Renfroe is the manufacturing lead.

Also on the team in various subsystems are Daniel Corey, Dashiell Hajian, Bradley Henderson, William Hill, Nicholas Jordan, Brent Kennamer, Jarod Matlock, Elizabeth Payne, Devon Sanders and Akifumi Takeyama.


Dr. Francis Wessling

Jim Steele