Giving Students "Space" for Galactic Discovery, and a Launch into Research

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From left to right: Adrian Seemangal, Vincent Lan, and Brian Sun of Team Obsidian.

Despite its infinite reach, real estate in outer space is a precious commodity.

Nowhere is that more apparent than within the tiny plastic tube, roughly the size of a magic marker, that a group of four University of Maryland students filled with silicon and iron oxide this fall in preparation for a 420-kilometer trip skyward no earlier than November 21, 2022. They hope that, once closer to the stars, their miniature laboratory (the fifth unique student experiment to spend time aboard the International Space Station, or ISS, as part of UMD’s Terps in Space program) will offer insight into how planets form.

[ Find details on the launch and live coverage here. ]

It’s an experience that’s truly out of this world: the opportunity to design an experiment, write a compelling proposal, and vie for the chance to have your work tended to by astronauts in near gravity.

At UMD, it’s an opportunity made exclusively to undergraduate students, thanks to a legion of dedicated staff, faculty, and graduate student mentors. At the helm is Daniel Serrano M.S. ’10, Ph.D. ’14, an alum-turned-senior faculty specialist who—after serving as a proposal reviewer in 2014—made a pitch that UMD become one of just a handful of universities to participate in the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education’s Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.

Space missions—even pint-sized ones—come with a hefty price tag: All told, sending one experiment costs $25,000 before materials and personnel. Serrano works with external sources, as well as departments and schools on campus, to secure funding each year for Terps in Space.

“The behind-the-scenes administration and mentorship is critical for this to even happen,” says Serrano, who works for UMD’s Institute for Physical Science and Technology. “Many of those same volunteer faculty who were with me on that first review in the basement of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum come back and make this possible, year after year.”

The Terps in Space program has grown a dedicated following, with many participants returning after graduation to assist with logistics and provide student support. Jason Hipkins ’21, who participated as an undergraduate and now advises for both Terps in Space and Maryland’s Students for the Exploration and Development of Space chapter, says it’s an experience that rivals any you can get at Maryland: an extra-curricular activity that’s inclusive and interdisciplinary, and that also offers a foray into research at a pivotal time.

“If you’re a curious person, programs like Terps in Space are a really valuable experience and a great introduction to research,” Hipkins says. “It’s fundamental to advancing UMD’s activities as a research institution. I would attribute Terps in Space as one of the reasons I stuck with research.”

“If you’re a curious person, programs like Terps in Space are a really valuable experience ... I would attribute Terps in Space as one of the reasons I stuck with research.”

— Jason Hipkins ’21

While Serrano concedes that sending an experiment to space is resume gold, what keeps him running the program is the bevy of skills students gain before the rocket is launched. Writing, teamwork, critical thinking, planning, communication, and even fundraising (teams are responsible for funding their own materials) are skills both integral to Terps in Space, and alien to the typical undergraduate project.

“It’s the real deal,” says Serrano. “The vision of the program is to expose students to the full spectrum of the scientific profession in a condensed period. Terps in Space is an opportunity for students to gain skills that aren’t conventional for an undergraduate experience, but that will really resonate as they begin their professional journey.”

Bound for Space: Terps Experiment Scheduled for Launch

Among the precious cargo aboard SpaceX’s 26th commercial resupply mission for NASA to the International Space Station will be Team Obsidian’s experiment to better understand the mechanisms of planet formation.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Dragon is targeted no earlier than Monday, November 21, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Live launch coverage will air on NASA Television, the NASA app, and the agency’s website, with prelaunch events starting Friday, November 18.

[ Find details on the launch and live coverage here. ]

From Powder to a Planet: An Inside Look at this Year’s Space-Bound Experiment

In 2022, Team Obsidian—the fifth Maryland team to participate in the Student Spaceflight Experiments program through Terps in Space—beat out 10 other Maryland teams for a coveted spot aboard the International Space Station.

The experiment—which aims to better understand the mechanisms of planet formation by exploring how small particles of dust coalesce—was developed by students Vincent Lan (materials science and engineering), Brian Sun (mechanical engineering), Adrian Seemangal (geospatial information science), and Joseph Niba (math), with the help of graduate student mentors Michael Kio (chemical and biomolecular engineering) and Anmol Sikka (aerospace engineering) and support from Peter Kofinas, chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and his research lab.

While only the size of a magic marker, the experiment capsule offers flexibility, including the ability to separate materials. Team Obsidian will put a mix of silicon dioxide nanopowder and glycerol on one side and a mix of iron oxide and glycerol on the other, which astronauts will later mix on board the ISS.

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in the U.S. and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with Nanoracks LLC, which is working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory.

This story appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Engineering at Maryland magazine.

Published November 18, 2022