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Busy Skies, Busy University

By Darrell J. Pehr

NMSU students, faculty, staff play key roles in space, aerospace developments

The skies above New Mexico State University’s Las Cruces campus provide a vivid blue backdrop to surrounding mountains, and without a major airport or military base in the city, these vast skies seem quiet and uncluttered on most days.

Airliner-free and Air Force-free perhaps, but those who take a closer look can find much more.

In the heart of campus, the grassy NMSU Horseshoe sometimes doubles as a launch site for a canoe-sized unmanned helicopter, and students in the three-year-old aerospace engineering program are developing tiny, micro air vehicles in campus labs that someday could be used to monitor Mesilla Valley crops from above.

At the nearby Unmanned Aerial Systems Flight Test Center, a unique, 15,000-square-mile resource operated by NMSU’s Physical Science Laboratory, university faculty and staff have played a critical role in the recent launches of various unmanned aircraft; and, last October, observatories on campus and in the Sacramento Mountains tracked a NASA mission to the moon in search of water.

Jesse McAvoy and RMAX helicopter

Mechanical engineering doctoral student Jesse McAvoy works with a Yamaha RMAX helicopter that was donated to NMSU by Northrop Grumman this past spring. McAvoy has already made a manually controlled test flight of the $200,000 helicopter.

Pretty busy skies, it seems.

And that’s not all. Each fall, hundreds of space travel enthusiasts gather in Las Cruces at the annual International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight, and in 2009, the event experienced a 30 percent increase in attendance.

The symposium’s organizer, the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, received word in 2009 that NASA had granted a $3.5 million, five-year extension to NMSU for the consortium. NMSU serves as the lead agency for the organization.

SunLight Eagle aircraft

In June, NMSU’s Physical Science Laboratory announced that it had hosted the first flight ever of a solar-powered unmanned aircraft in the national airspace. The flight of the SunLight Eagle, with a wingspan of 113 feet but weighing just 173 pounds, was powered by on-board solar panels. It was flown by Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation of Manassas, Va.

During the New Mexico winter, NMSU crews head south – way south – to help launch massive balloons that drift to the edge of space over Antarctica, carrying payloads of scientific experiments for weeks aloft, so long that one flight set duration records in January 2009.

It wasn’t the only record-breaking flight for NMSU during 2009. In June, PSL announced that it had hosted the first flight ever of a solar-powered unmanned aircraft in the national airspace. The flight of the SunLight Eagle, weighing just 173 pounds but boasting a wingspan of 113 feet, was powered by onboard solar panels.

The achievement followed several developments during the year at the Flight Test Center, which, in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration, provides the only national airspace approved for flight tests of unmanned aircraft. The center also announced its first director, Bruce Tarbert, who recently retired from the FAA with more than 32 years of experience in the aviation industry.

Gov Bill Richardson

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson speaks on the NMSU Horseshoe at the first event of a multi-day celebration in June of the groundbreaking for Spaceport America. With Richardson is Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima.

With its network of observatories in Las Cruces and in nearby mountains, NMSU is keeping an eye on the heavens. NMSU researchers and their colleagues at other organizations have landed National Science Foundation and NASA Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research funding of more than $3 million (including NMSU matching funds) to study space weather generated by the sun, and the university is angling to become the headquarters site for the National Solar Observatory, which would draw more world-class scientists and engineers, along with research activity, to the university as well as high-tech businesses to southern New Mexico.

This buzz of activity in space and aerospace endeavors at NMSU comes during a period of time when New Mexico finds itself in a starburst of headlines about the state’s role in the exploration of space.

In June, NMSU served as the first site of a multi-day celebration of the groundbreaking for the world’s first commercial spaceport – Spaceport America – about 45 miles north of Las Cruces. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was the keynote speaker at the afternoon event, held on the NMSU Horseshoe. The formal groundbreaking at the spaceport site took place the next day.

A day later, the unique, twin fuselage aircraft – White Knight Two – that will ferry space tourists some day, flew over Las Cruces and the city’s airport, the 11th test flight of the California-based plane. Organizers expect that in less than two years, White Knight Two will begin taking off from Spaceport America, carrying the newly unveiled Space-ShipTwo to its launch altitude of 50,000 feet, where it will detach and rocket into suborbital space.

Giant Helium Balloon

NMSU had a hand in the record-breaking flight of a high-altitude balloon last year over Antarctica. Launch operations for the massive balloons are conducted by the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility of Palestine, Texas, which is managed for NASA by the Physical Science Laboratory at NMSU.

PSL provides a wide variety of technical services to Spaceport America, as well as technical support during launches, including planning and coordination among support elements, coordination with White Sands Missile Range and range surveillance.

In the days when suborbital flights for space tourists become commonplace, NMSU’s connection to space and aerospace activities is sure to remain strong, not only as its aerospace engineering program graduates enter the workforce, but also in large part because the scientists of tomorrow may well have gotten their first taste of space even before their college years. NMSU’s Southern New Mexico Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academy is an after-school aerospace enrichment program that was developed as a collaboration between the colleges of education and engineering, NASA, Las Cruces Public Schools and the Gadsden Independent School District.

From the excitement of commercial space flight and the frontiers of unmanned aerial systems to the training of future scientists and the exploration of the wonders of the universe at Earth-based observatories, the university is forging ahead on many levels, whether it’s hovering micro helicopters mere inches above a campus lab test table or watching space weather generated by the sun, 93 million miles away.

Busy skies, busy university. Through the efforts of its researchers, faculty, students and staff, NMSU has a big presence in space and aerospace.

Psychologists research what it takes to fly unmanned aircraft

By Susan Prosoco

New Mexico State University researchers are using engineering psychology to further the research efforts of the Physical Science Laboratory’s unmanned aerial vehicles.

The collaboration at first glance seems out of sorts, but when digging deeper, it becomes apparent that “unmanning” an aircraft still can require several hours of observation between the human operators and the automatic systems.

Jim McDonald, NMSU psychology department head, said after becoming involved with PSL, he and his team began looking at handling qualities, workload, human/computer interaction and most importantly, vigilance.

“The system is automated, so the operator doesn’t have a lot to do in between take-off and landing,” McDonald said. “It’s an issue of responsiveness.”

One of the team’s goals, in order to minimize vigilance concerns, is to determine what is the optimal number of UAVs an operator can control at one time.

McDonald said the researchers also look at the circumstances of accidents or any type of loss of aircraft and evaluate what improvements can be made.

“We’re looking at general training requirements, the general ability one needs to operate an unmanned aircraft,” said PSL Deputy Director Steve Hottman. “We’re also going to start research on night operations and how well observers can perform.”

Several organizations are beginning to use UAVs as part of regular business operations, and if they haven’t started yet, they plan to. McDonald said all branches of the military use UAVs and future plans call for all fighter aircraft to be UAVs. The Transportation Security Administration, UPS, U.S. Border Patrol and the National Forest Service are all interested in implementing UAVs.

PSL’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Flight Test Center offers unique opportunities for UAV research. It is the largest such facility within the national airspace and has certificates of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration for flying outside military airspace. Most of the experiments are conducted in the Jornada Experimental Range in southern New Mexico.

“There’s about 15,000 square miles of airspace, but it’s not restricted like White Sands Missile Range,” Hottman said. “We fly where general aviation traffic flies. The smaller UAVs will operate at lower altitudes though.”


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