Jet Propulsion Laboratory

UT alumnus Payam Banazadeh spoke to students in STEM-related programs about an opportunity to work with NASA on Monday evening. 

Photo Credit: Jarrid Denman | Daily Texan Staff

Starting this year, NASA will give University students and faculty the opportunity to propose a mission concept that the space administration may actually use.

The Space Mission Design Challenge, presented by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, known as JPL, allows students and faculty to propose space mission concepts for review by a special committee of JPL engineers. The program has been previously offered to Stanford University and the University of Michigan.

One of the committee members, UT alumnus and JPL engineer Payam Banazadeh, said the challenge enhances teamwork between different departments at the University.

“I think the main benefit here is to connect the science students and science department to the engineering department,” Banazadeh said. “We want to show that, to be able to achieve any scientific goal, [there] is collaboration between the two different disciplines.”  

According to the challenge’s rules, the concept must either be science-driven or have a technology demonstration objective. Banazadeh said, depending on the capability of the designs, the committee will select four to five ideas from students and faculty.

In the fall, those selected will have the opportunity to work with aerospace engineering students at the University to develop the concept. The top two teams will travel to Pasadena, Calif., for a two-day design session with JPL engineers and scientists.

Aerospace engineering senior Tyler Bollman said he thinks the program will help students prepare for the industry.

“I think it’s a great way to get into the business, definitely from a student’s perspective, to straight into learning how the business is handled in a mission scenario,” Bollman said.

Aerospace engineering professor Wallace Fowler, who teaches Spacecraft Mission Design with engineers from the JPL providing input on the students’ final projects, said the Space Mission Design Challenge presents a fantastic opportunity for students to excel.

“We haven’t done anything like this at UT, ever,” Fowler said. “I told students in the class, ‘If you want to work for JPL, this is not just an assigned presentation. This is an audition.’”

With the challenge open to all UT students, Banazadeh said he believes sometimes the best ideas come from students outside traditional aerospace engineering circles.

“If you come from the other end of the spectrum, you don’t think about feasibility,” Banazadeh said. “You come up with a crazy idea and then give the engineers the problem and say, ‘Hey, solve this.’ I think that’s a better way to approaching these innovative-type missions.”

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will fund UT research projects after the University signed an agreement with the space program Tuesday.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory added UT to its Strategic University Research Partnership program Tuesday. The program, which includes 11 other institutions of higher education, partners NASA with universities so student researchers and faculty can propose collaborative research and educational projects with Jet Propulsion Laboratory researchers. Under the agreement, UT student and faculty projects are eligible for Jet Propulsion Laboratory federal funding.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is a research institute based in California that handles active space exploration projects like the Mars Exploration Rovers. In August, the Mars Curiosity Rover, a project Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked on, landed on the red planet.

Undergraduates, graduates and UT faculty from specific programs will be able to propose research projects to the Strategic University Research Partnership program, Byron Tapley, director of UT’s Center for Space Research, said. Tapley said this is an exciting opportunity for undergraduates.

“It is a major benefit to be able to interact with Jet Propulsion Laboratory,” Tapley said. “It is stimulating. The fact that it is being done and the fact that they can be involved in what is happening really benefits undergraduate students.”

Tapley said it was an exciting moment for him.

“This is a very big day and a very important day,” Tapley said. “I think it is something we really needed here. I am happy to see this day come to pass.”

Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said before the formal agreement signed Tuesday NASA had more than 50 years of work with UT.

UT and Jet Propulsion Laboratory collaborated on the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellite program, which launched two satellites in 2002. The satellites are currently taking measurements of the Earth’s gravitational field. Tapley is one of the professors who worked on and continues to work on the project.

“We have had a long-term relationship with individual faculty at UT,” Elachi said. “What we wanted to do was build a stronger and longer relationship.”

Elachi said outside of California, UT is one of the largest sources of Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s employees. Almost 150 of Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s employees are UT alumni, Elachi said.

For example, UT alumni Richard Cook is the project manager of Mars Rover Curiosity. According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA employs about 5,000 employees at its research site in California.

“This program can be a source of both more research collaboration and future UT students becoming employees at Jet Propulsion Laboratory,” Elachi said.

In a statement Tuesday, Juan Sanchez, UT’s vice president for research, said this partnership will enhance UT’s educational experience.

“Our partnership will enrich the educational experience of undergraduate and graduate students in science and engineering, as well as offer faculty members opportunities to collaborate on JPL’s far-reaching projects of exploration,” Sanchez said in his statement.

Printed on Wednesday, October 17, 2012 as: NASA teams with UT to fuel program 

UT and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory partner up

UT students and faculty are now eligible to receive federal funding for space exploration research projects through a partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

JPL selected UT for its Strategic Research Partnership program, partnering JPL with universities. Student researchers and faculty at selected universities can propose collaborative research and educational projects with JPL researchers. UT is the 12th university joining this partnership. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is a research institue based in California that handles active space exploration projects like the Mars Exploration Rovers.

Undergraduates, graduate students and UT faculty can all participate in the program, said Byron Tapley, director of UT’s Center for Space Research.

“This is a very big day and very important day,” Tapley said. “I was not aware of the program until Charles Elachi brought it to my attention, and I think it is something we really need here. I am happy to see this day come to pass.”

JPL director Charles Elachi said this agreement comes after years of work with UT.

“We have had a long-term with individual relationship with individual faculty at UT,” Elachi said. “What we wanted to do was build a stronger and longer relationship.”

In the past, UT and JPL collaborated on the GRACE Satellite Program, launching two satellites in 2002. They are currently taking measurements in the Earth’s gravitational field.

Elachi said this partnership also creates an “employment pipeline” for students.

Q-and-A with Bobak Ferdowsi, systems engineer at NASA'’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Bobak Ferdowsi, flight director for the Mars rover Curiosity, who cuts his hair differently for each mission, works inside the Spaceflight Operations Facility for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, JPL in Pasadena, Calif. on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

While viewers anxiously watched Curiosity, NASA’s Mars Science Lander, during it’s “Seven Minutes of Terror” in the early morning hours of August 6, 2012, it was not a live feed of Mars they were seeing. Unlike human spaceflight missions, they watched the rover’s personality come alive via humorous tweets, cutting edge video simulations and the reactions of flight engineers in the control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. The matching Polo shirts, crazy hair and unabated excitement in the control room combined with the meme-making explosion of fans on the internet spawned an unlikely STEM education hero. When he’s not making science cool again, NASA’s “Mohawk Guy,” Bobak Ferdowsi, enjoys sci-fi and music festivals with his friends. Ferdowsi had some great advice for students as he sat down with The Daily Texan via Skype.

The Daily Texan: First off, who did your hair?
Bobak Ferdowsi: I have a friend named Katie [Encaco] that works at The Factory (a hair and makeup studio with an in-house art exhibit and DJ booth) in Pasadena, CA.

DT: Where did you go to school?
Ferdowsi: I went to school at University of Washington and then MIT.

DT: On your way to NASA did you do any interning?
I worked through school. I had a research assistant position during undergrad, and then the same thing in grad school.

DT: What advice would you have for students, especially in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields?
Ferdowsi: I think you have to pick something you really like doing. There’s a lot of hard work of course. A lot of it comes down to just having good friends around you and the company. I personally really love the people I work with and that helps me get through a lot of the more difficult times. I think the other thing is you have to find reasonable goals along the way, milestones that you can achieve. For me it’s been nine years on this project, and if I was just waiting for this one, I would’ve probably given up a while ago. There’s little things along the way that you find, like I did this test really well or I did that, and that helps kind of keep you going.

DT: What inspired you to pursue a career in the space industry?
Ferdowsi: I always liked math and science of course, and as a kid, I would always sketch out cars and spacecraft and things like that. Then it just sort of seemed like a natural evolution I guess in some ways. I liked sci-fi, and I thought space was really cool. It’s something that is so unique to humanity. It’s something we can do that’s so much cooler than what one guy can do by himself. It’s like this team effort, and in doing it as a big team, you feel like, ‘Look at what we were able to accomplish.’ That’s really exciting, for me at least ... the thought that I could be a part of something bigger.

DT: Some people have described Adam Steltzner (lead engineer of Curiosity’s Entry Descent and Landing phase) as sort of a hipster. How does he feel about you stealing the spotlight from his Elvis hair?
Ferdowsi: I hope I’m not stealing the spotlight. He is one of the most amazing people I know because he’s such a well-grounded person, and he has such a cool life, I think, in general. On top of all that, he’s leading this entry-descent-landing team, and obviously, you saw the results of that. I hope that I’m not stealing, and I don’t think that I’m stealing any of his spotlight. I have a little bit of idol worship when it comes to Adam, but I see him all the time, and we obviously work together. We’re having a good time. I think we’re just both enjoying the fact that MSL (NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory) was such a success.

DT: Have you ever been to Texas?
Ferdowsi: I’ve been to Dallas, Houston and Austin. I have family that lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, so I’ve been there a lot. I had a couple friends that went to UT-Austin, so I like it. It’s fun.

DT: You said you’ve been working on the Curiosity mission at NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) for nine years? When Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004, were you already planning for Curiosity?
Ferdowsi: We’ve actually been planning for Curiosity in one way or another probably since about 2001, so this is a little over almost eleven years now in the making by the time we landed. When I came on, it was kind of like the concept area. We were still working on like what is this mission going to achieve, what sort of technologies are we going to be able to have and demonstrate, what is going to be the feat forward for science, and in our case, what is going to be the big feat forward for the landing system?

DT: I know your social media presence has sort of blown up over the past couple of days, but is there anything in particular you would like to see NASA do in social media? What social media do you personally prefer to work with?
Ferdowsi: I think our team here actually has been really awesome. I follow a lot of the NASA, JPL and all those kind of feeds. It’s fun that we have a sense of humor about the whole thing, and I think that’s a good way to reach out to more people. It’s really cool for me on a personal level. I love getting to know some of the other people at the centers, and things like that. It makes it a more relatable experience because obviously, I always find the science and engineering stuff very cool, but it’s also really cool to kind of see, ‘Oh. That’s a person, and I understand what they’re going through.’ It’s really fun to get that inside information into what it’s like at other places and what other people are doing.

DT: What are you like just as a normal person? What are some of your favorite music or movies or television shows?
Ferdowsi: That’s a tough question. I really like “How I Met Your Mother.” It’s kind of a little bit sad now in retrospect, but I haven’t had a whole lot of time for TV in the last couple years. In terms of music, I went to Coachella this year. That was awesome. I had a great time. I went with a bunch of coworkers and friends, and we had a blast. I’m into whatever. I like to have fun too, but sometimes, like the last couple years, of course, it’s been a little more work-focused and trying to get this thing off the ground and onto Mars.

DT: Did you know that there have been astronauts tweeting at you such as Mike Foreman and Clay Anderson? I’m sure you have just like an inundation.
Ferdowsi: That’s actually really awesome. It still kind of blows my mind that there are people that think highly of me, especially people like astronauts which I think are so cool. I haven’t realized that, but I’m totally going to go look for that right now because that’s totally awesome. That’s amazing.

DT: The Space Center Houston event hosted more than 1500 people, and everyone was so excited to watch the landing.
Ferdowsi: It’s so emotional for me to see the fact that other people are really excited about this too because for me it’s always been a labor of love. It’s incredibly fulfilling to see the Times Square pictures of people out there watching the landing and seeing all the landing parties that are going on everywhere. It’s so rewarding to know that everybody else loves this stuff as much as we do.

DT: What are your future plans, at NASA or otherwise?
Ferdowsi: I’ve got at least a few months of being a flight director on the surface, and I’m kind of learning that job right now. Yesterday was a training day for me, and today I’ll do a little bit more of it. Then after that I’m just hoping that we have another really exciting project to work on. I have to say, it was funny because after nine years, you’re a little bit tired and exhausted maybe from this project, but as soon as we landed, I was just like, ‘Let’s do this again!’ For the next project, I think it’s going to be an awesome ride, but in the meantime, I think Curiosity is just going to be an amazing project. We’re going to get so much cool pictures and science back, and I hope people are still excited about it.

Program Coordinator of Irrigation and Water Conservation Markus Hogue mages the irrigation system spanning across 125 acres of campus. It is the largest water-conserving irrigation system in the United States.

Photo Credit: Pu Ying Huang | Daily Texan Staff

Markus Hogue can turn on any sprinkler on campus with a few clicks from his office in Facilities Complex Building 8. At his desk, Hogue can watch as water data comes in, something he can spend six hours of the day doing. Hogue has spent the last year helping install and program a new campus-wide irrigation system that went live this April. The system is a one of the kind in the United States. New data released Friday shows the University saving 3.8 million gallons of water in the three months since, something that has attracted the attention of the city of Forth Worth, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But Hogue says he is not a celebrity. At least not yet.

To address costly issues of water conservation, as well as breaks and non-existent communication methods in the prior watering system, the University changed its watering methods in April with the completion of a central irrigation system. This new system has the ability to track gallon usage, detect breaks, keep track of rainfall and track water evaporation as it happens. It can be operated and monitored from either a single computer, a smartphone or a remote control — things the old irrigation system could not do. And because of these features the new system has saved millions of gallons of water along with hours of manpower.

“It is unbelievable,” said Hogue, who is UT’s program coordinator of Irrigation and Water Conservation. “It is telling me everything.”

This new central irrigation system is being used in part with a pilot program with the city of Austin. The pilot program is allowing properties to water within a water budget instead of specified days and times. Properties have less restrictions on when they can water — as long as they stay within these water budgets.

Jacob Johnson, Austin’s conservation program specialist, said the city is currently working with 16 different properties including the University, but hopes to expand to 90 by the end of the two-year pilot program. Johnson also said the current assigned water budgets were set at 15 percent less than what they would normally be because of the drought. But Hogue said the University was still watering under budget thanks to both the new central irrigation system and rainfall in early May.

Since the project’s completion, the irrigation systems are currently checked daily instead of monthly. With the new system, Hogue said the University has benefited in both research and conservation.

“It’s one of the top-of-the-line systems out right now,” Hogue said. “In the state there are a few places using a central system. But nobody is using them to what we’re doing. We’re actually collecting data, sharing it with places and trying to help conserve.”

Hogue said his favorite feature of the new irrigation system is its ability to detect high flows when more water is coming out of a zone than the computer expects there to be.

“In the old system, it wouldn’t have shut off,” Hogue said. For hours, water could leak from sprinklers before ever being detected. “Now, it immediately shuts off the zone, flags it and lets me know.”

In the event of a high flow, the system detects it immediately, shuts off the zone and sends out an alert to Hogue.

Hogue said this is an important part of the system considering how much foot traffic the campus gets.

“We have 75,000 people walk on campus almost every day during the [fall and spring],” Hogue said. “They kick [sprinkler] heads, they run over stuff, damage gets done. So that’s why that flow system is such a vital aspect.”

Hogue said the ability for the system to detect flow control has saved the University approximately $27,000 in its first three months. And that is just the flow control feature. In March and Apil, Hogue said there were 330 high flow alerts, which would have cost the University 2.6 million gallons of water if it were not for the new system.

The system is also able to determine how much water is needed based on climate. The system has two Evapotranspiration Detectors (ETs) that measure how much water is being evaporated from the soil due to wind and heat factors.

“That amount comes into the program and it either gives us more water or less water based on what is the actual need, making the system more efficient,” Hogue said. “We’re saving a bunch off that.”

For example, most sprinkler systems are set to run on certain time intervals. But with the ETs, the central irrigation system can run as long or as short as it needs to. Hogue said Facilities Services will not know exactly how much is being saved from ET data until a full season is complete.

Three rain buckets on campus operate within the new irrigation system as well and Hogue said the buckets are doing more than just measuring rainfall. They are calculating how much water the soil is receiving by rainfall and determining how much less water needs to be put out by the irrigation system.

“So say we get an inch of rain in one hour,” Hogue said. “The ground can only absorb 20 percent of that. So the program goes through and only takes 20 percent of that one inch, and it uses it to calculate it into the system and says: ‘Okay, we’re going to run half an inch that day, we already got .2 inches already down, we only need to water for .3 more.’”

Hogue said more than 18,000 sprinkler heads were changed, making a switch to a rotator-type nozzle, which waters more slowly and results in less runoff and waste.

“The nozzels are gorgeous to watch, I love them, they are mesmerizing,” Hogue said. “There is almost no misting in these; you are wasting no water in it.”

When it comes to benefiting from the system, Luis Garza Jr., Assistant Manager of Irrigation and Installation, said irrigation managers have to stay within their assigned budgets.

“The only way you can make this work and save water is you got to have a budget, you got to have a timeline and you have to stick with it,” Garza said. “And you have to monitor it. You can’t just use it as an on and off button.”

Hogue said he is trying to promote the central irrigation system to institutions who may benefit. Along with receiving calls about the system, Hogue has been asked to serve as a health and service alternate on the Texas Advisory of Water Council.

“This thing is an easy retrofit to any system out there, to get it on when one person can manage and watch it,” Hogue said. “One person could manage all the parts in the state of Texas. They could sit at one computer and manage all the parts, and then send reports out to the guys in the field.”

But Hogue said they are not just using this information to report back to the city, but are sharing it with others and hoping systems like UT’s will be adopted elsewhere.

“We want people to know about this so they can work on their systems and save water,” Hogue said. “If we take all this knowledge and keep it to ourselves, we’re not bettering anyone.”

But it hasn’t been picked up elsewhere. At least, not yet.