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Then & Now: Pushing the Frontiers

UND Discovery Magazine - Mon, 2013-12-09 08:40
Then - The "Deep Blue Sea" of North Dakota Research at landlocked UND yielded discoveries about high-pressure environments

This semi-fisheye view shows the primary chambers and supporting apparatus of the Man-in-the-Sea project. The facility occupied a significant portion of UND’s Upson I engineering building. Photo courtesy of UND Special Collections.

The University of North Dakota wasn’t the obvious choice to conduct deep-sea research.

The irony is inescapable, as the University is roughly 1,500 miles away from the nearest ocean. Rugby, N.D., just 150 miles to the west, has a stone cairn marking the geographical center of North America. But UND’s geography was irrelevant for faculty in engineering and medicine who looked to expand their research capabilities in the 1960s.

They submitted proposals to the U.S. Department of Defense after the creation of “Project Themis,” a program established to develop centers of excellence at universities. Their second proposal was approved and, starting in 1968, the University received capital to construct a new kind of lab. It was known as the “Man-in-the-Sea” project.

Funded by the Office of Naval Research for $2 million — a big amount today and even bigger then — the UND High-Pressure Life Laboratory was the only one of its kind in the western world. The 40-foot-long, 20-foot-wide, and 9-foot-high structure in Upson Hall consisted of two 7-foot spheres joined by a passageway and a gate valve. Each sphere had seven sub-chambers — animal living chambers — where atmospheric pressure was regulated by an IBM computer.

During the dedication of the laboratory on Nov. 30, 1973, U.S. Navy Rear Adm. M.D. Van Orden noted that although humans have walked on the Moon, the oceans on our own planet were still a mystery to us. The Man-in-the-Sea project was a giant leap forward.

“There is no other laboratory like this elsewhere in the world that can do the type of research that will be conducted here,” said Van Orden.

Thomas K. Akers, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native and UND physiology and pharmacology professor, became the director of the Man-in-the-Sea project in 1972. Akers, a Navy veteran and founding member of the North Pacific’s chapter of the Underwater Medical Society, found that humans are fragile under extreme pressure.

“Many of the physical laws we’ve always accepted don’t seem to hold in a high-pressure environment, and we are just beginning to discover some reasons why this is so,” Akers told the Grand Forks Herald.

During the lifespan of the project, tests were run on the animals’ respiration, oxygen toxicity, nutrition, bone and calcium metabolism, circulation, reproduction, drug metabolism, and renal function. The data collected helped researchers understand the effects of high atmospheric pressure on humans at sea depths of 1,300 feet. Naval Research hoped the results would eventually lead to humans having the ability to harvest food and resources off the continental shelf, an undersea plateau that forms 18 percent of Earth’s total area.

Keeping humans healthy at those depths is challenging. It centers on finding the minimums and the maximums. Under pressure, nitrogen, argon and other gases become so dense it’s hard to breathe. An interdisciplinary team of UND researchers began substituting nitrogen in favor of helium, which was less dense under pressure. They learned nitrogen is an essential element, a fact they didn’t know before the study.

Researchers had another good day at the office when they returned a group of lab rats to normal atmosphere after 84 days at 20 times the normal atmospheric pressure. The pressure maintained during the experiment simulated pressure below 660 feet of sea water — near the maximum depth of the continental shelf. It nearly tripled the longest span a human had spent in those conditions at the time.

Though breakthroughs like these provided the Navy with essential information, the Man-in-the-Sea project had a shelf life.

With rising equipment costs, once the Man-in-the-Sea project met all original objectives, it ended in 1977. The large pressure chamber was dismantled. The seven-foot spheres were given to the UND Park District and became playground equipment for children growing up far from any ocean.

Akers drove past the new-use playground spheres every day on his way to work.

“They remind me of the good days,” he told the Herald. “They were busy, long days, but it was lots of fun. It was one of the largest interdisciplinary projects ever done at UND, and the sense of teamwork we had was wonderful.”

Editor’s note:  Thomas Akers retired from the UND faculty in 1991.  In addition to his teaching and research accomplishments, he also was recognized as an artist.

Brian Johnson

Now -The Moon and Beyond, Right on the Campus
(cover story) UND puts a total planetary exploration system to the test

Students Travis Nelson (left), Tim Buli and Erica Dolinar spent 10 days in a pressurized, inflatable “habitat” designed to simulate a surface exploration mission on the Moon or Mars. Funded by NASA, the trial tested life support and other engineering systems and received considerable media attention.

A recent international test of three spacesuit systems locked in the University of North Dakota (UND) as a key player in planning for future long-term missions in space.

UND was the only university on the planet invited to participate in the European test program held in October. UND’s Department of Space Studies team flawlessly showcased its ingenious, team-built NDX spacesuit system under the glare of media spotlights.

“We specialize in spacesuits for surface exploration,” said Pablo de León, an aerospace engineer from Argentina and director of UND’s Human Spaceflight Laboratory, all part of the Space Studies program in the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. “They’re specifically enhanced for locomotion: for walking and for manually manipulating objects, tools, etc., on a planet’s surface. We want to improve mobility, to allow freer walking and working on a planet with lower gravity than Earth’s.”

The recent European test was part of an ongoing international effort to prepare for an eventual human expedition to Mars.

Pablo de León, director of UND’s Human Spaceflight Laboratory, watches as Space Studies graduate student Josh Borchadt tests the suitport mechanism that supports the NDX-2AT spacesuit on a “rover” simulator. The system would use airlocks to eliminate or minimize the intrusion of surface dust, an issue encountered during the Moon missions of the 1970s.

Well suited

De León’s lab is the home of the NASA-funded NDX Planetary Exploration System.  But we’re not just talking spacesuits; NDX is a whole system for the surface exploration of planets such as Mars.

“We’re designing, planning and building the whole system, including the suits, the inflatable habitat, the air locks and rover,” de León said. “We developed the research infrastructure to simulate an entire planetary base scenario, and it puts us in the forefront of lunar and Mars mission planning.”

De León, who spent many years in industry working on spacesuit design and who has penned several books about manned spaceflight, says UND is uniquely qualified for the work ahead.

“We have in place the analog infrastructure that will allow planners of long missions to do tests right here at UND,” he said.

The UND NDX team set up a trial run this fall, putting three specially selected students into the system’s pressurized inflatable habitat for 10 consecutive days. The trial, funded by NASA, was designed to simulate a surface exploration mission on the Moon or Mars. It included tests of the habitat’s life support and other engineering systems.

Researchers also designed the trial to see how well the system components, including the habitat, rover, spacesuits and airlocks, worked together. This was a prelude to a much longer trial scheduled for spring 2014. De León added that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which has been involved in just about every U.S. space mission, recently sent other experiments to try out in UND’s pressurized, inflatable habitat.

De León foresees that UND will be testing and working a lot more with NASA, which has funded his team’s work, and with the space industry and international partners to make these missions a reality.

“The idea is that as a university, we’re going to create useful knowledge,” de León said. “That includes producing prototypes such as our NDX system that are useful to NASA and the companies that will actually build the suits.”

Proof of UND’s influence in the spacesuit system sphere is a recent second edition of U.S. Spacesuits, a book by Kenneth Thomas. He is a historian and engineer at Hamilton-Sundstrand (HS), one of the two primary builders of U.S. spacesuits. In that book, one of UND’s NDX suits is prominently featured in photos and text.

Space Studies graduate student Tiffany Swarmer puts one version of UND’s NDX spacesuit through an exercise to demonstrate its flexibility and range of motion.

No ordinary spacesuit

One of the key elements of equipment for a future human expedition to Mars will be a spacesuit that allows astronauts to roam the surface. Martian explorers will face a bitterly cold, dusty environment with a thin atmosphere of mainly carbon dioxide. They’ll have to rely on their spacesuits to provide oxygen to breathe and a comfortable temperature, pressure, and atmosphere in which to work.

Then there’s the mobility issue, de León said, comparing the NDX suit with the current day “zero-g suit” worn by astronauts doing spacewalks while tethered to the International Space Station (ISS).

“The ISS suits are almost immobile from the waist down because you don’t need any walking capabilities in that environment, even though it’s called a space ‘walk,’” de León said. “All they have to be able to do is attach their feet into a foot restraint located at various points on the ISS.

“What we try to do is the inverse of that: we aim to develop suits where you can use your legs and arms in order to facilitate your work on a planet’s surface.”

In addition, de León said that the NDX team is designing and building suits that can be serviced and repaired on the planetary surface.  Most of the suits developed so far are Earth-servicing only, designed to be used in low-Earth orbit, such as on ISS, and then taken back to Earth after a couple of space walks.

“But for a mission to Mars, which is expected to last at least three years, you can’t take your suits back for repairs or maintenance. You have to be able to do that right where you are — on Mars,” he said.

An interesting place

De León sees space exploration, including a trip to Mars, happening relatively soon.

“But we’re not going to do it one country at a time,” he said. “It’s not necessarily going to be done by the United States all by itself. Because of the cost and complexity of a crewed mission to Mars, you’ll see a consortium of partners that have already been successful in space, working together to get to that goal.”

De León sees the NDX system as a key player in the development of future space missions.

“This all puts us in a very interesting place,” he said. “We have a starting point to become a university known globally for having a unique system that we can offer organizations such as NASA.”

De León said that for students on his team — both undergraduates and graduates — the work is highly participatory.

“Ultimately, it’s about our students. Because we’re very hands-on oriented and because I have extensive experience in the space industry, I believe that our students should not just be working from a stack of texts and papers,” said de León. “Our students come to us from all over the world because they’re excited about the research we’re doing here.”

Juan Miguel Pedraza

Categories: RRVRC NewsWire

Making Sparks to Ignite a Passion for Science

UND Discovery Magazine - Mon, 2013-12-09 08:30
UND physicist Nuri Oncel looks for connections to encourage prospective students to discover new interests within themselves

Art teacher Betsy Thaden and Nuri Oncel hold paintings created by students in her class at Red River High School in Grand Forks. Oncel provided images of atoms and molecules to spur the students’ creative instincts — and perhaps more curiosity about science as well.

For ambitious teenagers looking to shape the world we live in, a career in science is a perfect fit.

That’s what University of North Dakota physicist Nuri Oncel found as a boy growing up in Konya, Turkey, in the 1990s. An early interest in math and science sparked his eventual career in physics — a natural fit that has opened doorways to a world of discovery.

“In high school, I had a great math teacher,” Oncel said. “After taking a couple semesters of his classes, I realized I should either be a mathematician or physicist. I love how your brain actually operates when you do mathematics. I loved the magic of that.

“That teacher knew how to teach. He knew how to challenge the students and help students understand the concept:  the real meaning of the mathematics.”

Today, Oncel is the one doing the inspiring, getting local high school students to dabble in real research in hopes they might one day consider careers in science.

Supported by a National Science Foundation grant, Oncel is researching advances in nanotechnology that could make electronic devices lighter, cheaper and more powerful.

“One day, we will be using individual atoms to make a device,” Oncel said. “At that point, classical physics won’t be enough. Devices will be working under the laws of quantum physics. Then, everything we know of will be different.”

As part of the research, he is reaching out to high schools and tribal schools across the region to get young people involved.

In one initiative, Oncel is presenting images of atoms and molecules to local high school students; they, in turn, take inspiration from the images and create works of art for exhibition.

“I can talk about quantum mechanics and how interesting this nano stuff is, but it won’t appeal to all of the students.” Oncel said. “I believe that if we use art to express science, it will be more attractive, because there is a human connection to that.”

“After creating art or looking at a friend’s artwork, maybe one of the students will choose to become a scientist. Then I’m happy. Then the project is a success.”

Betsy Thaden, an art teacher at Red River High School in Grand Forks, N.D., said the images provide her students with meaningful learning opportunities that link art with real-world applications.

“The experience gave them insight into new possibilities and exposure to a science they may not have known about,” Thaden said. “It also opened their eyes to how the arts align and are connected to other curricular areas.”

Oncel hopes the art also will attract attention in local communities when it goes on display; he wants as many people as possible learning about the innovative research happening at UND.

Oncel knows that some students write off physics as a possible major, thinking that a physicist mainly works at a desk and tackles complicated equations. However, not all physicists work that way.

“In the lab, we design and build special instruments to study physics of nanostructures. An important part of the work involves using wrenches, nuts and bolts — really basic instruments. It’s very hands-on work.” Oncel said.

Oncel is also reaching out to American Indian communities.

“You don’t find a lot of American Indian students in physics, chemistry or mathematics,” he said. “I’m a physicist and I’m kind of worried about that.”

Oncel invites American Indian teachers and students to get involved. He realizes he can work with only a limited number of Native American high school students in the lab.

“When I work together with a high school teacher on a research project related to nano science, I actually reach out to all the students in that school.” Oncel said. “Because the teacher carries that know-how back to the classroom, and that increases our chance to have a student major in science.”

And what the influence of a good teacher can do is something that Oncel knows very well.

Brian Johnson

Categories: RRVRC NewsWire
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