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NMSU faculty-student team helps design X PRIZE launch pads

Engineering student Kevin Angeles had a blast in Dallas - a rocket blast, that is. And the concrete slab he helped create performed just fine, thank you.



Sonya Cooper, left, head of the engineering technology department at NMSU, and Charles Lee, a movie set designer and art director, supervise the construction of a landing pad designed to resemble the surface of the moon. Concrete was poured and formed last week in preparation for the X PRIZE Cup competitions at the Las Cruces International Airport Oct. 20 and 21. (NMSU Photo by Ben LaMarca)

Four thousand pounds of thrust. Five thousand degrees Fahrenheit. That's what the launch and landing pads for the X PRIZE Cup's Lunar Lander Challenge have to be able to withstand.

And to make the space vehicle competition a little more realistic, one of the pads will look like the surface of the moon.

Planners of the X PRIZE Cup's 2006 events, to take place Oct. 20 and 21 at the Las Cruces International Airport, approached Sonya Cooper, academic head of New Mexico State University's Engineering Technology and Surveying Engineering Department, some months ago for help with the launch pad designs.

"We love to get students involved," said Brooke Owens, director of flight operations for the X PRIZE Foundation. "We asked them to help us design the concrete mix for the launch pads for our vertical takeoff and vertical landing competitions."

Angeles, a senior civil engineering technology major from La Union, took on the challenge as a special projects class under Cooper's supervision. As a first step, "we researched different concrete mixes and admixtures," Cooper said.

The civil engineering technology curriculum includes an entire course on concrete and asphalt technology, she said. But this was not your typical patio slab or concrete highway. The X PRIZE folks needed five pads, each 10 meters in diameter - about 33 feet - and six inches thick. Each pad has to be strong enough to withstand the extreme pressures and temperatures of rocket-powered vehicles taking off and landing vertically. And one of them has to resemble the lunar surface.

"No one in our business has ever been told to mess up a slab," Cooper said with a chuckle. "We'll use boulders and create craters and depressions, and we'll use a pigment so it's the color of the surface of the moon."

Charles Lee, a production designer and art director with experience creating lunar surfaces for the IMAX movie "Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D," was hired by the X PRIZE Foundation to design the 10-meter moonscape for the upcoming competition.

Concrete mix design "is all about proportioning," Cooper said. "You have fine aggregate to coarse aggregate ratios, concrete admixtures, water/cement ratios for strength, those kinds of variables. One of the tests we do is called a slump test, where we put wet concrete in a cone, remove the cone and measure how much the concrete slumps. We specified a low slump for this, for strength. But it's hard to work with when it's that stiff."

The mix design Angeles and Cooper came up with was based on one used for Harrier jets, which have engine nozzles that can direct the thrust downward for vertical takeoffs and landings.

In the department's concrete lab, they mixed up a trial batch, placed the concrete in a 4-foot-by-4-foot form and tested the wet concrete. Engineering Technology Professor Kenny Stevens, the instructor of the concrete technology course, assisted with the trial batch. After it cured for six days, they performed a compression test; the concrete tested above its predicted strength.

Then it was off to Dallas for a blow-down test. Angeles took an airline flight; the slab went by FedEx. "The driver had no idea what he was supposed to pick up, but we had enough help to get it loaded," Cooper said. "It was about 700 pounds."

At the Armadillo Aerospace workshop in Dallas, "they actually used one of their rockets for the test," Angeles said. "That was a nice surprise."

Armadillo Aerospace is one of the Lunar Lander Challenge competitors.

Angeles said he had to wait about eight hours, until about 1:30 a.m., "while they machined a part for the rocket engine" to replace a part that blew out in a test a few days earlier. But when the pad was finally subjected to the rocket blast, "it did great," he said.

Air got under the slab during the test - something that won't be a concern for the actual launch pads - "so the blast actually lifted the slab off the ground," Angeles said. "Once it dropped, it broke."

Still, the slab withstood the 5,000-degree heat of the blast with no trouble. That cleared the way for placing the full-size launch pads at the airport last week in preparation for the big event. For more information about the X PRIZE Cup and the Lunar Lander Challenge, go to http://www.xprizecup.com/.

First photo is available at http://ucommphoto.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/blast_test.jpg.
CUTLINE: NMSU engineering student Kevin Angeles examines a sample of concrete after it was subjected to the blast from a rocket engine. Angeles helped design the concrete mix for the launch/landing pads to be used for the X PRIZE Cup competitions to be held at the Las Cruces International Airport Oct. 20 and 21. (Photo by Brooke Owens, X PRIZE Foundation)

Second photo is available at http://ucommphoto.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/x_prize_lunarscape.jpg.
CUTLINE: Sonya Cooper, left, head of the engineering technology department at NMSU, and Charles Lee, a movie set designer and art director, supervise the construction of a landing pad designed to resemble the surface of the moon. Concrete was poured and formed last week in preparation for the X PRIZE Cup competitions at the Las Cruces International Airport Oct. 20 and 21. (NMSU Photo by Ben LaMarca)

Oct. 9, 2006
Karl Hill, University Communications, (505) 646-1885, khill@nmsu.edu