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NMSU undergrads engineer success in 'Fachaba Project'

A team of undergraduate students from New Mexico State University's mechanical and aerospace engineering programs launched a research payload into space last month. The students jokingly referred to their effort as the "Fachaba Project - FAst, CHeap And Barely Adequate," to reflect the quick turnaround from vision to blastoff.

NMSU students Angel Veloz, Doug Weathers and James Fleeman show off the payload from their "Fachaba Project." (Photo submitted by Doug Weathers)

Engineering students Doug Weathers, Angel Veloz and James Fleeman designed, built, programmed and delivered the rocket payload in a short, six-week effort that was included in the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium's annual student rocket launch May 4.

Weathers learned of the launch opportunity in early December and got into action as soon as he returned from the holiday break, creating a student team with Veloz and Fleeman and bringing aboard mechanical and aerospace engineering department head Tom Burton as faculty adviser. NMSGC supported the endeavor, and Ed Pines, head of the industrial engineering department at NMSU, brought Boeing on board to provide funding for materials.

The project was an extension of Weathers' activities during a summer 2009 internship at Spaceport America, as well as another project developed while taking an Experimental Methods I mechanical engineering class. While at Spaceport America, Weathers developed ideas for an inertial measurement unit that could track the trajectory of private spacecraft launching from the Spaceport. He saw this as a more efficient and less costly alternative than the process currently in use, as the Spaceport contracts White Sands Missile Range to provide radar tracking.

Once the internship ended and Weathers returned to school for the fall semester to continue progress toward his aerospace engineering degree, he turned his attention primarily to course work, including the Experimental Methods I class, which allowed him to further develop his IMU idea. Classmates Veloz and Fleeman attempted a model rocket with on-board temperature sensing and recording as their final project, and enlisted Weathers' assistance in programming a Basic STAMP micro-controller?an integrated circuit that contains many of the same items as a desktop computer, such as a CPU and memory, used to control the rocket.

"The rocket actually crashed in the desert and destroyed the data," said Weathers. "But it was a great project and we decided to do it again sometime."

Considering the NMSGC launch was originally scheduled for April and time was short, the team needed an inertial measurement unit that was already calibrated and programmed for their specifications. An IMU is an electronic device that measures and reports on a craft's velocity, orientation, and gravitational forces, using a combination of accelerometers and gyroscopes. They are typically used to maneuver spacecraft, including shuttles, satellites and landers. Fleeman located one from MEMSense, an IMU manufacturer, for more than $2,000, and Pines submitted a proposal to Boeing to cover the costs, which Boeing accepted.

With only a week before the project deadline, the IMU arrived. Veloz and Fleeman fabricated the payload while Weathers handled the software.

The payload gathered information that can be analyzed toward the Spaceport tracking goal. As described by Weathers, "The information gathered through the IMU sensor measures accelerations in three axes, rotation rates in three axes and the direction of the Earth's magnetic field in three axes. We also had an air pressure sensor on board that gave us an independent method of finding altitude."

The team used the data collected from the launch to support comparison with WSMR radar measurements.

Weathers presented the project at the 2010 Southwest Regional Technical Symposium, held April 15 at the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum. "It went quite well," Weathers said. "The audience was appreciative."

The NMSGC Launch Program, "Education Launch?Out of this World Learning," provided the rocket and hosted the launch that took the Fachaba Project and other student experiments into space May 4. In addition to NMSU's project, the 20-foot rocket carried student-made experiments from Dona Ana Community College, Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, San Juan College, New Mexico Highlands University, Central New Mexico College and Hot Springs (Truth or Consequences) High School.

Weathers anticipates earning his bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering by spring 2011. Fleeman is also an aerospace engineering major, while Veloz is a senior in mechanical engineering.

For more information on Weathers' mission to further mankind's access and ability to move in space, visit his Web site, Learn Something, at http://www.gdunge.com/.