Researchers at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas are working on a device that could be used in a future mission to Mars and other space travel. The team is creating a prototype device that would be used to sense the speed of spacecraft when it enters the atmosphere of other planets, according to NBC 5.
Volkan Ötügen, a professor and senior associate dean in the Mechanical Engineering Department at SMU, said the work is “fantastically exciting.”
The SMU professor spoke to NBC 5 on July 18 about the project.
Ötügen said, “This is fantastically exciting. You want your sensors to be as small and as light as possible so that there’s more room for additional payload. So our sensors are miniaturized and they’re extremely light.”
He is working on the sensor with a team of high school, undergraduate, and Ph.D. students. Ötügen told NBC 5 that having a range of students work on the project encourages young people to be more interested in science.
“So this is also a way of getting, you know, more young people interested in science and engineering and technology, exploring not only our planet, but the outer space, other planets. Science should be an equal opportunity thing,” he said.
The prototype sensor, called the optical microresonator, is around the same size as a grain of rice, approximately 250 times smaller than other sensors used for spacecraft, according to Ötügen. The sensors currently in use are too heavy and take up too much space.
“They take up too much space. They take up too much weight. Spacecraft need to be light to be able to throw them into space and be put into orbit,” Ötügen told NBC 5.
The team is being funded by federal taxpayer dollars funneled through NASA, according to a Phys.org post from SMU. The new sensor should improve the odds of a spacecraft being able to land on Mars successfully. According to the post, out of all Mars missions worldwide, only 40% successfully landed on the planet.
Southern Methodist University is not the only Texas college working alongside NASA on future projects. The University of North Texas (UNT)was selected to work on a project for the 2022-2023 M2M X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge, according to the NASA website.