| The Gainesville Sun
A team of University of Florida mechanical and aerospace engineering students, professors and researchers has been awarded a $12.5 million NASA contract to test and build a space exploration device over the next four years.
The group is creating a charge management system for the LISA space project, a cutting-edge technology system designed to trail behind the Earth as it orbits the sun and intercept gravitational waves.
Those measurements can then be interpreted by scientists to determine what caused the waves, like the collision of two black holes, for example, and help discover otherwise unseen areas of space, regardless of how many light years away the events occurred, said John Conklin, project director.
LISA is an international effort headed by the European Space Association in combination with NASA and now UF.
UF’s team is led by experts Conklin and Peter Wass, a UF MAE associate professor and research scientist, respectively.
Both have been working on various aspects of LISA for about 15 years, they said, since they were graduate students at other universities. They hope to see it launch in the next 15.
“It’s a great reward for a lot of hard work done and a lot of hard work to come,” Wass said.
LISA is highly complex, full of moving parts tuned down to subatomic particle motion, Conklin said.
The technology is made up of three spacecrafts, he said, each two meters in length and 1.5 million miles apart, that center on and rotate around two internal particle masses. The particles are tiny, barely 2 inches long, and made of gold and alloy. Each spacecraft uses laser technology to measure distance changes between the particles as gravity waves pass by.
Currently, similar technology exists on Earth to intercept and measure the gravitational waves from space. But LISA will change the game, Conklin said, by existing in space without gravitational interference from the planet, where it can then pick up a greater number and variety of waves.
“The Earth is a very noisy place in terms of gravity,” he said. “To measure the really low wavelengths, we have to go get away.”
Samantha Kenyon, a fifth-year doctoral candidate in Conklin’s lab, said UF’s job is to ensure nothing but the gravitational waves move the particle masses, and electricity is one main problem.
Kenyon has spent the past three years building a UV-light device that can monitor electrical charges of the particles and shine the appropriate amount of UV light on them to keep their charge at zero, preventing unwanted motion.
“To get a new contract when the next phase is starting is kind of a nice milestone,” she said. “It’s been really cool to be a part of it and see this project develop.”
The new NASA contract will allow her and her teammates to create and test a prototype of their charge management system out of high-quality space equipment by July 31, 2025. If successful, the prototype will then be replicated in the next handful of years and included in LISA’s launch sometime around 2034, Wass said.
From there, LISA will take a year to reach and enter orbit around the sun, before collecting data for a minimum of 4-6 years, he said.
“It’s a lot of waiting, but in the end, the result will be worth it,” Wass said. “It’s measurements that no one’s ever made in space.”