Upcoming SpaceX Launch to Take UAB Hardware to the Space Station
On Friday, representatives from the group that designed those units will attend a ceremony at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, to accept a pair of NASA Group Achievement Awards—one for the team's work on the Polar project, and another for its role with the ISS Cold Stowage team for providing “exceptional hardware development, engineering, integration, and operation of cold stowage assets supporting research utilization of the International Space Station.”
The awards put the spotlight on UAB's Engineering and Innovative Technology Development (EITD) team, a little-known but highly accomplished part of the School of Engineering that has been producing high-quality equipment for space-related research for more than a decade.
“These awards are a well-deserved testament to the excellent work done by Dr. Lee Moradi and the EITD team over an extended period of time,” says Iwan Alexander, Ph.D., dean of the UAB School of Engineering. “This is a reflection of the team’s ability to not only design and build high-quality specialized hardware, but also to provide the critical support necessary to the success of space-flight experiments.”
Polar units, which can maintain temperatures as low as negative 80 degrees Celsius, are the latest of a string of space freezers created by the EITD team, which is led by Lee Moradi, Ph.D. Previous models include the MERLIN (Microgravity Experiment Research Locker Incubator) and the GLACIER (General Laboratory Active Cryogenic ISS Experiment Refrigerator).
The four Polar units being launched this month will join eight other units—four MERLIN and four GLACIER—already in use on board the ISS.
“Once these Polar units reach the ISS, that will give us 12 total units in orbit, which we monitor from our facility at UAB,” says Dan Connor, MERLIN project manager. “We have the capability to speak directly with astronauts on the space station if on-site adjustments are needed, but we designed the units so that we can trouble-shoot most issues remotely.”
As an example, Connor cites an instance where a unit wasn’t drying out properly. He received an alert on his phone and the team was able to quickly initiate a defrost cycle on the unit and correct the problem. “In cases like that, we’re sometimes aware of the problem before the NASA controllers,” he says.
That level of support makes EITD an integral component of ISS research efforts, and the group achievement awards reflect the complex interagency teamwork required for the success of those efforts. For example, the Group Achievement Award for the Polar team includes EITD as well as personnel from NASA and Jacobs.
Maintenance on the units between missions, however, is strictly a UAB affair. “Units get rotated out after three years in orbit, Connor says. “Insulation in a vacuum degrades over time, so they come back here for us to recondition or re-service the equipment as needed.”
For this month’s SpaceX launch, team members from Jacobs will be present at the launch. Connor says EITD members typically are on site only when MERLIN units are on board, and they must monitor the units from takeoff to docking on the ISS—a trip that could take up to two days.
“There have been times when people have been at the launch site and were able to watch the space station pass overhead, and then you see the rocket launch immediately after...and yet you have to wait a day and a half before it finally catches up to it,” Connor says. “It gives you an interesting perspective when you consider the speed and the distance, and the fact that we have someone monitoring it at all times from our office at UAB.”
Cold Stowage Products
EITD is one of the nation's leading developers in cold stowage hardware for use in microgravity and exploration. Current cold stowage projects include the following items. Click on any image for additional information about the product.
(Microgravity Experiment Research Locker Incubator)
(General Laboratory Active Cryogenic ISS Experiment Refrigerator)
The most recent of the cold stowage units designed by EITD, Polar is capable of maintaining temperatures as low as negative 80 degrees Celsius.