Nov 282011
Authors: Elisabeth Willner

Doctoral student Brian Lee works with space technology, and until recently he did so because it was intellectually challenging and interesting to him. But now, he’ll be gearing his research toward NASA.

NASA selected Lee, a physics and mechanical engineering Ph.D. student who also received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from CSU, as a member of its inaugural class of Space Technology Research Fellows.

Through the fellowship, Lee will spend approximately 10 weeks of the spring semester at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland working with NASA scientists, and will receive $66,000 in funding for his research. He is one of 81 doctors and masters students from around the country who received the opportunity.

“Most of my day-to-day activities will stay the same,” said Lee, who spends about 40 hours a week working on the project. “Now I have a very specific target for my research, and that is to improve the diagnostic method for NASA to use.”

Lee’s research deals with Hall thrusters, a type of electronic propulsion system used to maneuver satellites and deep space probes. Specifically he’s researching a new testing method that could improve the thrusters and help solve a problem of their use.

The thrust provided by a Hall thruster is only about the weight of a piece of paper, but unlike a traditional rocket, Hall thrusters can operate continuously for many years.

This makes them ideal for long-term applications.

While the thrusters operate, however, their insulation gradually erodes, reducing their lifespan. To test this erosion currently requires a lengthy process. Researchers must run the thruster in a vacuum chamber for the duration it will be needed, then measure the amount of erosion that occurs.

Lee is researching an alternative testing method, which uses lasers to measure the amount of eroding particles discharged by the thruster at any given moment. The measuring technique, known as cavity ring-down spectroscopy (CRDS), allows for researchers to project the total erosion.

“Our hope is that one day the rapid diagnostic will replace the very costly, long lifetime tests,” Lee said.

The CSU Laser Plasma Diagnostics Laboratory pioneered the use of CRDS to test Hall thrusters and various students have worked on the project since 2004.

Lee joined the lab in 2009, and Azer Yalin, Lee’s advisor and an engineering professor, said that the project has made substantial progress in the past two years in part because of Lee’s contributions.

He saw Lee’s selection for the NASA fellowship as a credit to his background and the project.

“Brian has done his undergraduate and now graduate work at CSU,” Yalin said. “The fact that he received this fellowship shows that the quality of our undergraduate and graduate programs is competitive with anywhere in the United States.”

Ph.D. student Randy Leech, who also works with Hall thrusters in the same lab as Lee, said his research may indirectly benefit from Lee’s fellowship.

“It’s a good fit for Colorado State and NASA to fund him and Dr. Yalin in doing some of this research,” Leech said.

With NASA’s recent budget cuts, funding from NASA may seem counter-intuitive to some. Lee said that the cuts, which recently reduced funding for commercial space taxis to the international space station, are troubling.

Missions that involve his work are less likely to be cut, however, since hall thrusters aren’t used to propel manned missions — one of the main targets of spending cuts. Unmanned missions, which use the thrusters, have been cut less.

“We’re hoping to actually increase in popularity,” Lee said.

In the meantime, Lee said he’s focusing on what’s in his hands: his research.

Collegian writer Elisabeth Willner can be reached at

The Space Technology Research Fellowship

Given to: 81 masters and doctorate students from around the country

For: Research that can be applied toward NASA missions and goals
Aims to: Increase U.S. innovation and competitiveness in space technology

Benefits include: Time at NASA research centers, direct contact with an advisor at NASA and funding of up to $250,000 per year

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