COE-CST Celebrates Conclusion of 12 Years of Research

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

The Florida Tech lightning research group from the department of aerospace, physics and space sciences, Hamid Rassoul, Distinguished Professor of Physics, and the former dean of the College of Science, together with his collaborators, Visiting Research Professors Amitabh Nag and Ken Cummins has done extensive lightning research throughout the CST-COE program.  Ken Cummins, a member of the NASA Lightning Advisory Panel, provided a summary of their work during the final COE-CST meeting in April. The team’s focus was primarily on better identifying onset and cessation of charge separation within clouds, or in other words, when ordinary clouds start becoming electrified to form thunderclouds.  “Our team was well aware of the significant impact of thunderstorm-related weather delays on launches, particularly at Kennedy Space Center” Rassoul said. “Indeed, beyond vehicle and payload issues, weather has been the single largest source of launch delays and scrubs on the Eastern Range.”

Research has shown that for large launch vehicles, clouds electric fields of about 10,000 volts per meter (10 kV/m) can result in triggering lightning.  Unfortunately, such modest-sized electric fields may produce quite small electric fields at the ground. So, the greatest weather-related uncertainty is due to inability of directly measuring the vertical electric fields aloft (within developing or decaying clouds), in order to assess the risk of triggering lightning during launches.

In their research, Measurements of Thunderstorm Electrical Parameters for Improvement of the Lightning Flight Commit Criteria, the team (including Florida Tech graduate student Mathieu Plaisir) explored the measurement of total electric currents (called Maxwell currents) from the ground, rather than the vertical electric field. One of the components of this current, known as the displacement current, is proportional to the time-derivative of the electric field, and allows better understanding of lightning threats faced by spacecrafts when launched.

The team built a Maxwell current sensor and made long-term side-by-side measurements of the current as well as the vertical electric field during this two-year project. They also built and laboratory-tested an air conductivity measurement device that was also needed for this work. “We found that under certain circumstances, specifically attached anvils overhead, and approaching large-scale synoptic systems, the Maxwell current measurements provided unique information that is complementary to what is normally provided only from the electric field measurements.” Nag reported. “The operational value of this work lies in the ability to provide a better understanding of potential lightning threat to launch vehicles”, he added.

In addition to studying storm time elevated Maxwell current, the team has observed pronounced transit variations of the displacement current during fair weather. Scrutinizing the possible source(s) of these unexpected transit currents can open up new applied research opportunities beyond the primary objective and scope of this project.  

Collaborative Research

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.”

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