Ou Ma, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor, was awarded a four-year, $1.68 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop new reduced-gravity simulation technology for astronaut training and biomechanics research. The grant will also fund a new simulation facility.
Ma is leading a multidisciplinary team of investigators to create and test an innovative design of an adaptive, passive reduced-gravity simulator. His partners include Robert Paz, associate professor of computer and electrical engineering; Son Tran, associate professor of computer science; and Ed Pines, professor and department head of industrial engineering. A team of student researchers is also working on the project.
The simulator design, based on robotics and passive gravity compensation technologies, could offload any amount of a person’s body weight. By studying test subjects using the simulator, researchers could gain a greater understanding of the dynamics of the human body, leading to better insight into biomechanical characteristics of the human body in reduced gravity conditions. The controllable weight reduction technology may also be used to improve the practice of neuro-rehabilitation of patients with walking disabilities. From an aerospace perspective, it could enhance manned space exploration by providing a reliable, easy-access and low-cost astronaut training technology.
Ma was developing the concept of the simulator for some time, supported by seed money from the NASA Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, awarded to him by the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, as well as by a NASA Graduate Student Research Fellowship awarded to him for one of his graduate students. The NSF grant will allow Ma’s team to design a full-scale prototype of the simulation system and study the performance of the new technology with real human subjects.
The grant allows Ma to hire a full-time research engineer, and support two graduate students and at least two undergraduate students to work on the project. Additionally, a new laboratory equipped with state-of-the-art instrumentation for biomechanics and human performance research will be constructed in Jett Hall on the Las Cruces campus.