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UTSA wins $3M NASA award to launch extreme environments center

UTSA wins $3M NASA award to launch extreme environments center

(July 31, 2019) – UTSA, a public university that is nationally recognized for research excellence, will receive $3 million dollars from NASA to develop a new interdisciplinary Center for Advanced Measurements in Extreme Environments (CAMEE).

Climate change has created extreme environmental conditions such as ocean and polar warming, and sea ice reduction. Severe weather including stronger hurricanes, sweeping forest fires, destructive tornadoes, heat waves and droughts are now more common place. Recently, soaring temperature advisories were in effect for nearly 200 million people in some of the most densely populated parts of the country, including many areas not familiar with extreme heat.

To investigate these extreme conditions, NASA and UTSA will collaborate to push the boundaries of current measurement and modeling technology by conducting research in harsh and extreme environments. They will also study the challenging conditions produced when travelling at hypersonic speeds.

“It’s urgent that measurement technologies be developed for these challenging settings to understand the physical nature of these extreme environments, and to improve our ability to predict their behavior through simulations,” said Hongjie Xie, professor and interim chair in the UTSA Department of Geological Sciences. Xie, a remote sensing scientist, leads a team of five UTSA professors who will lend expertise to CAMEE.

The other four team members include Christopher Combs, a Dee Howard Endowed assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, who will investigate how the extreme hypersonic flow conditions experienced during atmospheric reentry will impact the design of NASA flight vehicles. Associate Professor and Associate Fellow in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astraunatics, Kiran Bhaganagar, will provide expertise on fluid dynamics, turbulence and other computational models. The team is completed by sea ice specialist Stephen Ackley and oceanographer Alberto Mestas-Nunez, who was one of the developers of ArcCI—an open source web-based dashboard to track sea ice changes in the Arctic Ocean. As it evolves, CAMEE will also welcome UTSA collaborators from other academic disciplines.

“What we have in common are harsh environments where all these measurements are made, but it’s really hard to make a measurement because the conditions are so extreme,” said Combs. “Whether it’s hypersonics, where everything is incredibly hot and you have plasma and disassociated air, or the polar ice caps, where everything is frozen and you have to do things remotely, we have similar challenges.”

CAMEE’s research focus areas will include: 

  • Polar Sea Ice and Sea Level Rise
  • Gulf of Mexico and Polar Oceans
  • Atmospheric Science and Extreme Events
  • Aerodynamics
  • Modeling, Simulation, and Big Data

“We are measuring and studying extreme conditions in the entire earth system including the atmosphere, the ocean, and sea ice. This is one novelty of this new center,” said Bhaganagar. 

The UTSA center will enhance NASA’s efforts to develop a diverse workforce in earth system sciences, remote sensing technologies, computational fluid dynamics, and experimental fluid mechanics in support of NASA’s Science, Aeronautics, and Space Technology Mission Directorates. The UTSA team also anticipates training 64 highly skilled professionals in STEM disciplines to support NASA’s mission.

CAMEE participants will enroll in summer internships at three NASA centers – the Goddard Space Flight Center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Langley Research Center.  Hands-on workshops will be offered to K-12 teachers to further develop an interest in earth system science, measurement, and data analytics among the next generation. The center will also create several experiential learning opportunities for UTSA students, providing them with unique training to pursue new career opportunities.

UTSA will also collaborate with St. Philip’s College, one of the Alamo Colleges District, which will provide an additional pool of students from the Colleges District to help with recruitment efforts, and the Dee Howard Foundation, which will also assist with local K-12 outreach activities.

NASA demonstrates that the Orion spacecraft’s launch abort system can outrun a speeding rocket and pull astronauts to safety during an emergency during launch. The test is a milestone in the agency’s preparation for missions to Mars. UTSA new CAMEE center will be part of the nation’s effort to help with this and other NASA endeavors. Photo credit: NASA

Additionally, CAMEE will include academic partners from the University of Colorado, Boulder and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) who will provide expertise in atmospheric sciences to tackle large scale phenomena such as how high-velocity Santa Ana winds are generated which can lead to massive forest fires. Other research collaborations will include Southwest Research Institute, Texas Space Grant Consortium and the US National Ice Center.

“One of the end goals of the center is to add to the Nation’s research capability in earth system science research and education,” said sea ice specialist Ackley.

In addition to helping solve grand challenges posed by extreme environments, the UTSA researchers believe that advanced measurement techniques could lead to breakthroughs in data acquisition for the similarly extreme environments experienced by extra-terrestrial surfaces during atmospheric entry of NASA’s space exploration efforts.  

By leveraging recent advances in measurement technology, UTSA, NASA and the other collaborating institutional organizations will develop novel diagnostic techniques that will drive discovery and improve the ability to operate in extreme environments across a wide range of measurement scales.

Milady Nazir

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University of Texas at San Antonio receives ‘transformational’ $40M gift

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