In 1967, NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft passed through a cloud of space dust that led to 45 minutes of intense meteorite impact unlike any meteor storm a spacecraft had ever before experienced. While the damage was slight, the ways in which space could spring surprises reinforced the importance of research in impact engineering.
In 2019 NASA sent a nationwide call to give research students the opportunity to leverage their academic work and research to fit NASA needs. Mechanical engineering doctoral student Pouya Shojaei was among nine promising students selected to form a collaboration team with the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
The Artemis Generation
Fifty years after the Apollo 11 moon landing, NASA announced in March that the space agency would return to the moon by 2024. The new program, named Artemis after Greek god Apollo’s twin sister, belongs to a new generation of engineers and explorers looking to expand American’s foothold in outer space.
Extending opportunities to researchers in higher education, the Marshall center challenged students to think about higher-level applications of their work for NASA. Shojaei approached the problem from his area of expertise: impact engineering, the study of how structures behave when experiencing a high degree of force in a short amount of time. The research is critical in many fields, including automotive and aerospace, because high velocities can result in severe damage or even death.
“I’m very passionate about impact engineering because it has applications in many areas,” Shojaei said.
Motivated by his advisors and now co-principal investigators, engineering professors Mohamed Trabia and Brendan O’Toole, Shojaei conceptualized how to extend his UNLV research to NASA applications. Within a week, he drafted a proposal that focused on testing the impact resistance of titanium components to micrometeorites by applying a metal matrix nanocomposite coating. The coating was developed in early 2019 through a NASA project in which UNLV researchers collaborated with Yiliang Liao at the University of Nevada, Reno.
While they had the experimental data, Shojaei developed a computer model that showed how the coating would meet NASA’s needs by enhancing impact resistance of spacecraft at different sizes and velocities, which would mean safer exploration for the astronauts inside.
Shojaei had only 15 minutes to pitch Marshall center representatives on his proposal.
“I interviewed with 10 different background experts and each asked very detailed questions about the project. Seeing their interest gave me the confidence to execute my interview well,” Shojaei said.
One week later, Shojaei received notification that he had been one of nine winning investigators awarded $5,000 to collaborate with the Marshall center. In the next six months, Shojaei will meet with NASA officials to provide research updates and discuss the outcomes. At the end of the collaboration, Shojaei and his colleagues will submit a report and reveal their findings.
“Our intent is that the project will be a stepping stone for further collaboration with NASA. Forming these connections is critical in helping UNLV and the greater Las Vegas community gain awareness of space exploration,” Shojaei said.