NASA Is Dedicating a Grant to Developing Power Systems for Space Exploration

March 18, 2020 by Luke James

Universities and research institutions play a huge role in helping NASA develop and propel its technology forward, helping it realise innovations that have included everything from unique rocket engine designs to vehicles that can interact with the surfaces on other planets.

And there is no shortage of talented researchers outside of NASA working at these universities, helping the agency look at the challenging aspects of space exploration in new ways and accelerate innovation for critical space technologies.

Now, through a $550,000 NASA-funded grant, a mechanical engineering professor from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) will lend his expertise to early-stage space exploration and help the agency investigate the viability of power sources when they are exposed to the temperature extremes of space.


Exploring Storable Chemical Heat Sources

The challenge of powering and heating spacecraft is made all the more complicated in the vacuum of space, and the challenge grows as spacecraft move farther away from the sun where solar panels are not able to absorb as much light. In a bid to remedy this and other related challenges, the research will look at storable chemical heat sources that can be controlled to provide heat and electrical energy on demand. 

The grant, which was awarded via NASA’s Space Technology Research Grants (SPRG) program, will also be used to investigate the use of metal-infused fuel sources—lithium and magnesium mixed with oxygen and carbon dioxide—and their reactions in temperature extremities at both ends of the scale. 


Evgeny Shafirovich, professor of mechanical engineering and his team of researchers.

Evgeny Shafirovich, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering in UTEP's College of Engineering. Image used courtesy of Ivan Pierre Aguirre, UTEP Communications.


UTEP's College of Engineering Research Team 

Evgeny Shafirovich, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering at UTEP’s College of Engineering, will be acting as the principal researcher. 

Shafirovich’s primary research interest is focused on the combustion of energetic materials and combustion synthesis of advanced materials for energy and aerospace applications. He said, "I am excited about doing research that may lead to the development of novel power systems for missions to very cold and very hot planets, where solar panels cannot be used effectively," 

Experiments that form part of his research will take place at UTEP while modeling will be conducted at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Shafirovich’s own students will carry out combustion experiments with laser ignition, and the team has access to and can operate a range of equipment and instruments for studies on the combustion of energetic materials.


NASA’s SPRG Program

Shafirovich and his team at UTEP are not the only ones researching storable chemical heat sources for NASA. The University of Central Florida, Orlando has also received grant funding under NASA’s SPRG program to investigate propagation controlled solid fuel-oxidant reactions for the generation of harvestable heat. 

Other institutions that have been awarded NASA funding include UCLA, Purdue University, Florida Institute of Technology, and Vanderbilt University. Rather than researching storable chemical heat sources, these institutions are looking at other areas which include next-generation durability and damage tolerance methodologies, machine and deep learning tools for protecting astronauts from solar energetic particle hazards, and technologies for rotating detonation rocket engines—rockets that launch spacecraft into orbit.