Methane rain team tests design in liquid nitrogen

Real-World Value from an Out-of-this-World EXPO Project

By Donna Emert

Tapping into the wisdom of experienced engineers and scientists is a huge perk of membership on an Engineering EXPO team.

But there’s a little bit of Jedi in every student engineer; they also appreciate learning how to use the force of their own knowledge and creativity.

Students involved with the 2011 EXPO’s Insane Methane Rain Plane project developed an experiment that can be flown on a future research mission to Titan, Saturn's largest moon.

“Many important discoveries about Earth have been made by studying the planets, including issues related to climate change, global warming and the ozone hole,” says David Atkinson, professor of electromagnetics and planetary sciences, who serves as team adviser.

Atkinson has conducted research extensively with NASA and other agencies, most recently gathering data on the Cassini-Huygens mission. He acknowledges that studying the rain on Titan could offer unique insights into planet Earth.

Titan has a thick atmosphere of primarily nitrogen, similar to the Earth but with methane in the atmosphere playing the role of water in Earth’s atmosphere, Atkinson explains. It also is the only place in the solar system, other than Earth, where scientists have detected precipitation and the only place in the solar system, other than Earth, where there are surfaces of liquid exposed to the atmosphere.

The IMRP team is developing a new method for detecting and measuring precipitation that will help scientists better understand Titan's weather, climate, storms, and hydrological cycle, and provide insights into Earth’s own climate, weather, storms and hydrological cycle.

“Professor Atkinson has extensively studied the environment in which our device will operate, and has generously taught the team many aspects of the project that we needed to know,” says Allison Tucker, a senior in biological systems engineering and member of the IMRP rain sensor design team.

But wisdom also means knowing when to step back.

“A huge role that IMRP's advisers play is in letting the team members figure things out for themselves, “ said Tucker. “We are able to do our own critical thinking and brainstorming, we come up with our own ideas. Our mentors don't tell us exactly what to do. This is great, especially because in the 'real world,' engineers don't generally have someone looking over their shoulder all the time.”

The IMRP student team is creating a sensor to determine presence, amount and size of precipitation on Titan. The sensor will be space-qualified, attached to an aerobot space probe and capable of surviving Titan's atmosphere.

They are building the device from scratch, without a set design or established procedure.

“This project actually proves that I have what it takes to be an engineer," says Tucker. "I've done the dirty work, the research, the design and the problem-solving. I've put my knowledge to work and have worked with different types of engineers to get a project done.”

The ability to move successfully from idea to actual application is a distinction that can set EXPO students apart in the eyes of potential employers.

Working as part of an interdisciplinary team also is something employers look for on a resume, Tucker says. The EXPO project report also provides potential employers with a sample of students’ communication skills.

But the greatest value in doing real-world engineering and design is that it’s real-world, says Tucker.

“And I can say I've worked on a project for NASA," she notes. "Really, how many undergraduate students can say they've been given that opportunity?”

The Titan Rain Detector Team

The Titan Rain Detector team includes faculty and students in biological and agricultural engineering, electrical and computer engineering and mechanical engineering. It is sponsored by the NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium.

Tom Hess, professor of biological and agricultural engineering with expertise in bioremediation, serves as student adviser; Atkinson and Jason Barnes, assistant physics professor specializing in astronomy, serve as mentors.

Student team members include: Tucker and Tim Kunz, biological systems engineering students; mechanical engineering students Kysen Palmer and Hieu Truong; and electrical engineering student Gabe Wilson.

Photos: The Titan Rain Detector Team tests their design in liquid nitrogen to predict what the prototype will experience on Titan.

The 20th Annual Engineering Design EXPO will be held Friday, April 26, 2013. All EXPO events are free and open to the public and take place at the Student Union Building on the Moscow campus.

Please continue to visit the EXPO site for more information on this year's projects.