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NMSU professor will build rocket engine test stand from NASA experience

Ed Conley, who has taught mechanical engineering at New Mexico State University for 20 years, has spent the last two summers researching rocket engine test stands during his NASA Administrator's Fellowship and plans to incorporate what he has learned into NMSU's Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

Ed Conley, a professor in the NMSU Department of Mechanical Engineering, stands next to a rocket test engine during his NASA Administrator's Fellowship. (Courtesy photo by Ed Conley)

To help advance NMSU's aerospace studies further, Conley will design a rocket test stand for the department for the final portion of his fellowship. Conley's rocket engine design will be similar to those he researched with NASA, but it will be to a smaller scale.

"The rocket engine test stand will not be unique to NMSU," said Conley. "But the new system will be instrumented far more extensively than earlier models with modern, networked sensors."

Conley compared the test stand's electrical networked sensors to the lateral line of flow sensors in fish.

"This horizontal line is an array of pressure sensors, which number from 200 in a frog to several thousand in a fish," Conley said. "The fish somehow manages the torrent of data to determine the position and relative size of other nearby fish. By integrating the sequence of signals that originate in this array, the fish is able to track prey and avoid predators. This all takes place in real time.

"Engineers are now trying to determine how this is done. A part of this larger effort is to outfit machinery with small sensors that can self-identify, self-calibrate and generate advice based on the comparative signals read by nearby sensors."

The design work for the rocket test stand has already begun and further details will be determined this spring. One grad student and two undergraduate students are helping Conley, who plans to have the hardware in place by fall 2010 to begin preliminary testing.

"The device will be used for NASA collaborative research and as a laboratory exercise for aerospace and other students interested in chemical propulsion," Conley said. "At this moment there are no specific courses into which the laboratory may be integrated. But with our growing aerospace program, we envision an increasing number of options both at the undergraduate and graduate level."

Conley said the program has 145 students and 65 came in during the fall 2009 semester.

Conley spent 12 months at the Stennis Space Center, located in coastal Mississippi, from August 2008 to July 2009. During this period, he observed colleagues who were putting together an experiment incorporating the modern, computer-based sensors. In July 2009, this package was tested during the Max Launch Abort System (MLAS) launch at Wallops Flight Facility located on the Virginia coast.