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NMSU research could lead to better, less expensive satellites

Research conducted at New Mexico State University could help make future satellites better - and at less cost.

Industrial Engineering Professor Joe Cecil (front) works with graduate students Gobinath Narayanasamy and Anant Trivedi (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

One of the keys is harnessing the power of virtual reality to analyze proposed satellite designs.

"Typically, companies make a prototype that costs several millions of dollars," said Joe Cecil, assistant professor of industrial engineering at NMSU. "Then they make changes and go back and forth, which lengthens the time it takes to manufacture and launch a satellite and again increases the overall cost substantially."

With virtual reality, Cecil explains, engineers can evaluate some aspects of a design before any money is spent on building an actual model.

Cecil and student researchers at NMSU have been working on a virtual reality environment to assist with satellite designs, especially studying their feasibility from an assembly perspective. They developed different software modules to perform assembly oriented analysis as well as other tasks such as allowing engineers to perform "virtual walk-throughs" using motion trackers and eyewear. Special virtual reality eyewear connected to the computer allows users to perceive depth. Some of the funding for this environment was obtained from the National Science Foundation and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL).

The result is an environment that allows engineers to evaluate candidate satellite designs or understand which design may be easier to assemble. New evaluation modules can be linked to the virtual environment to incorporate additional evaluation criteria from experts who want to propose new assembly methods.

Cecil notes, however, that it is not possible to simulate all engineering tasks.

"Collaborative research among engineers and scientists from various disciplines is crucial to be able to achieve this," he said.

This summer, Cecil and his students are beginning to develop preliminary measures to compare different satellite designs especially from a manufacturing perspective. In the long term, he said, such an approach would enable NASA and other space engineering organizations to decide between different designs on a project.

In general, Cecil said, the use of virtual approaches in industries such as automobile manufacturing and aircraft assembly has the potential to reduce the overall cost of product development by 20 percent to 40 percent.

In addition to the satellite project, Cecil and his students are developing virtual reality modules that could be used in other environments such as micro assembly, nano assembly and the assembly of printed circuit boards. One of the unique aspects of this research is the emphasis on an emerging area called 'information-based manufacturing." The new Center for Information Based Modeling at NMSU is the first of its kind worldwide and is collaborating with Sandia National Labs and NASA's Johnson Space Center, as well as universities in Mexico and India, on a variety of research and educational initiatives.

NMSU is one of only a handful of universities in the country that are teaching industrial engineering students principles and concepts related to the creation of virtual reality-based environments.

"Industry has told us they want this to happen," Cecil said.