Education Review

Gear-head nirvana: U-Md. space center is voted one of nation's 'most awesome college labs'

The laboratory, something of a nirvana for gear-heads and aerospace engineering students, has been named one of the top five most "'awesome college labs" by Popular Science magazine.
By Michelle R. Davis
Sunday, November 7, 2010

On a bright September day outside a barn at the University of Maryland in College Park, graduate student Andrew Ellsberry held what appeared to be a remote control for a battery-operated toy car. But as Ellsberry twisted and turned the knobs, he was taking a full-size moon rover for a test drive.

The silver, three-wheeled RAVEN moon rover is the size of a golf cart, weighs 800 pounds, and is powered by two super-size car batteries. Its "brain" is the same kind of computer processor found in a netbook. Students in the Department of Aerospace Engineering's Space Systems Laboratory built the rover, which won a NASA design competition.

As a smart, mobile assistant for astronauts, the rover and its robotic arm theoretically could follow instructions to bore holes into the moon's surface, collect rock samples and even carry an astronaut to safety in an emergency. Space systems lab students also designed a companion spacesuit to allow an astronaut to give the rover voice and keypad commands remotely.

"Somewhere else, I'd barely be able to touch the controls, but here I'm working with robots and spacesuit simulators," Ellsberry said, maneuvering the vehicle over a pile of sand.


For gear-heads, childhood Lego fanatics and devoted "Star Trek" fans turned college students, the University of Maryland's Space Systems Lab is nirvana. It was recently voted one of the top five most "awesome college labs" by Popular Science magazine, and students often go on to work for NASA or companies that develop space exploration products. "When I first toured the lab, it seemed like something between a candy store and Disneyland for me," said Ellsberry, who is working toward a master's degree in aerospace engineering. "My eyes were huge."

In the lab, graduate student projects often mix mechanical and electrical engineering with software design, robotics and simulation technology in two sites on campus. In the Advanced Robotics Development Laboratory, located in the main building of the engineering school, students tinker with robot manipulators designed to perform specific tasks.

Then, there's the Space Systems lab's piece de resistance. the Neutral Buoyancy Research Facility. Housed in a separate building, it has a gigantic water tank that simulates the weightlessness that astronauts and robots experience in space. It holds 367,000 gallons of water, weighs 2 million pounds and is the only tank of its kind on a college campus; the only other one in the United States is at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Such tanks provide "the best long-term simulation of weightlessness you can get on the surface of the Earth," said David Akin, director of the laboratory and an associate professor of aerospace engineering.

Students test spacesuits in the water. They sink robotic arms to the bottom to determine how they will perform a task, such as identifying and picking up specific objects in a zero-gravity environment.

On the top floor of the Neutral Buoyancy Research Facility, the tank is a perfect circle of aqua blue water, an open cylinder 50 feet across and 25 feet deep, with a concrete deck around it. Because of its size, the tank sits on a reinforced 24-inch foundation. In fact, the tank is so large that it was built first, then the brick building was constructed around it. Up on the deck, the air smells faintly of chlorine. Wet suits, oxygen tanks and other gear are jumbled along the edge, because students who want to test equipment in the tank must be certified as scuba divers.

Graduate students are using the robotics lab and the tank to test the Samurai robotic arm, designed to collect samples 6,000 meters below the ocean's surface, where the water pressure is 8,000 pounds per square inch. Students are also testing a black spherical vehicle called SCAMP (Space Camera And Maneuvering Platform), which simulates a free-flying camera platform. The goal is to develop a robot that can be equipped with a camera to fly around a space station, for example, searching for meteorite damage.

Students also work on projects that are designed for space but aren't tested in the tank. Behind the research building is a mock-up of an astronaut "dorm." The Space Systems Lab garnered a contract from NASA to design a "minimum function habitat" for four astronauts living on the moon for two months. Though the grant only required designers to create a theoretical habitat, graduate students turned an empty water tank into the real thing. Four students lived in it for a weekend, cooking in the galley kitchen, sleeping in the narrow bunks and using a chemical toilet.

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