The Federal Aviation Administration’s Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation has concluded a successful, 12-year run that saw important and impactful research, training and outreach in areas of human spaceflight, industry innovations and a host of related topics.
Florida Tech participated in more than a dozen projects, including research into air and space traffic control considerations for commercial space, human factors in spacecraft design, and measuring the electrical parameters of thunderstorms to help reduce weather-related delays and scrubs of launches.
“Friends, colleagues have been here pre-day 1, before it was awarded, putting this fantastic Center of Excellence together,” Daniel Kirk, engineering and science professor, said at the final CST-COE meeting in April. “I have been a part of this COE-CST more than 50 percent of my life at Florida Tech, and what a great time this has been, technically and friendship-wise. One of the highlights of my career and always will be.”
Kelvin Coleman, acting associate administrator, Commercial Space Transportation, for the FAA, complimented the group in a pre-recorded video message and acknowledged their “remarkable accomplishments.”
“COE-CST has been an important contributor to [the Office of Commercial Space Transportation’s] success since its inception,” he said, noting that it was “…consistently developing quality research results that benefit the FAA and industry. Many individuals contributed to the COE, and I thank them all. Your research has been high quality, relevant and innovative.”
A New World for Space Transport
Given the center’s focus and Florida Tech’s space roots, university faculty were, not surprisingly, involved with several space-related projects.
One project, Spaceport Regulation in a Post-Modern World, included research from Don Platt, associate professor of extended studies and the director of the Spaceport Education Center.
With more launches from commercial providers and the burgeoning space tourism industry, a growing number of places are looking at hosting or developing spaceports. There are currently 20 U.S. spaceports in nine states, according to the FAA, with the largest concentration – six – in Florida. Yet with more companies working to make access to space easier, faster and eventually cheaper, having a growing constellation of launch sites will be critical.
As a continuation of the research, Platt has two students examining new space companies and what it takes for one to succeed. The students are utilizing published information and trying to track key words and events that are required for a company to be successful, including milestones and key indicators for that success.
“The FAA is interested in that because, again, they’re charting the future of the space industry, and really as part of the U.S. government one of their goals is to enable the United States and U.S. industry to be a world leader in commercial space,” Platt said. “They’re looking at how can this happen, and what are the indicators that things are working well, and maybe the FAA can help in certain areas.”
Looking for Lightning
Florida Tech has done extensive lightning research through the CST-COE program, focused primarily on ways to better identify clouds with lightning potential to better protect spacecraft and potential passengers and more accurately postpone launches when warranted.
As a member of the NASA Lightning Advisory Panel, Hamid Rassoul, Distinguished Professor in aerospace, physics and space sciences professor and former dean of the College of Science, and Amitabh Nag, an aerospace, physics and space sciences professor who has since left Florida Tech, were aware of the significant impact of thunderstorm-related weather delays: After vehicle and payload issues, weather is the single largest source of launch delays.
“So the issue that is the greatest weather-related uncertainty we have is due to our inability to directly measure electric field, which means the amount of the charging electric field is proportional to amount of the charging within developing or decaying cloud,” Rassoul said. “The cloud is coming and then starting to charge, and then at one point, the charges decays and the clouds disappear. We need to be able to directly measure the electric field within the developing or decaying cloud to assess the risk of a triggering lightning during launch.”
In their research, Measurements of Thunderstorm Electrical Parameters for Improvement of the Lightning Flight Commit Criteria, Nag and Rassoul explored the measurement of a total electrical current from ground rather than vertical electric fields. Instead of measuring electric fields, they explored what currents are taking place, measuring volts in the field instead of amps. This allowed them to study and adjust for, the change in the electric field, which in turn allows them to better understand what lightning threats those launching spacecraft actually face.
Nag and Rassoul also measure the displacement current, also known as the Maxwell current, which is the rate of change in the electric displacement field. They built a Maxwell current sensor and made a long-term, side-by-side measurement of these currents in the electric field, as well as the ground based electric field. In concert with their devices measuring the electric field, they found that the Maxwell current measurement provided information complimentary to what was provided by the electric field, allowing for a better understanding of potential storms.
The original nine COE-CST “core” universities were Florida Tech, Florida State University, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, New Mexico State University, Stanford University, University of Central Florida, University of Colorado at Boulder, University of Florida and University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Baylor College of Medicine was added as a tenth “core” university in 2017.
Florida Tech’s Tristan Fiedler, federal government programs manager, led COE-CST collaboration and coordination activities, bringing on board affiliate and associate member universities and industry partners. This infusion increased the reach of the center, diversified participants and expanded the research portfolio.
Beyond the impact the COE-CST had, and has, on our understanding of key topics in commercial space, it provided another strong benefit, Fiedler noted: the hand-on experience students received because of the partnerships.
“Faculty and students at Florida Tech were the foundation of a 10-year program which provided research, industry engagement, career opportunities and hands-on experiences that aligned beautifully with our STEM activities borne of the U.S. Space program and now transitioning into a commercial domain,” Fiedler said. “The Center of Excellence highlighted many great faculty in engineering, science, business and psychology/liberal arts, then put our high-caliber students in the research limelight of a premier federal agency.”