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Space bound NASA to test prototype of UMaine wireless leak detection system by Elyse Kahl | Photography by Holland Haverkamp
Space bound

This summer, a wireless leak detection system created by University of Maine researchers is scheduled to be onboard a SpaceX rocket bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

The prototype, which was tested in the inflatable lunar habitat and Wireless Sensing Laboratory (WiSe-Net Lab) on campus, could lead to increased safety on ISS and in other space activities.

This is the first hardware from UMaine in recent history that is expected to function in space for a long period of time, according to the researchers.

In advance of the Aug. 1 launch, UMaine researchers are working with NASA to prepare three of the wireless leak detector boxes for flight.

Wisenet Sensor Box

UMaine’s wireless leak detection devices are expected to be ISS-bound in August. WiSe-Net Lab researchers also are exploring wireless technology with practical applications on Earth, including projects addressing issues related to veterans, aging and rural broadband.

In April, electrical engineering graduate students Casey Clark and Lonnie Labonte tested the payload, performed an electromagnetic interference (EMI) test, and completed the Phase 2 safety review of the prototype at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

The project was one of five in the nation to receive funding from NASA–EPSCoR for research and technology development onboard ISS.

Ali Abedi, a UMaine professor of electrical and computer engineering, was awarded the three-year, $100,000 NASA grant through the Maine Space Grant Consortium in 2014. Collaborators on the project include Vincent Caccese, a UMaine mechanical engineering professor, and George Nelson, director of the ISS Technology Demonstration Office at the NASA Johnson Space Center.

Leaks causing air and heat loss are a major safety concern for astronauts, according to Abedi. It is important to save the air when it comes to space missions — find the leak and fix it before it’s too late.

The project involves the development of a flight-ready wireless sensor system that can quickly detect and localize leaks based on ultrasonic sensor array signals. The device has six sensors that detect the frequency generated by the air as it escapes into space and triangulate the location of the leak using a series of algorithms. The device then saves the data on SD cards that are sent back to Earth.

The device is fast, accurate and capable of detecting multiple leaks and localizing them with a lightweight and low-cost system, according to Abedi.

Engineering students

In the WiSe-Net Lab on campus, electrical engineering graduate students Lonnie Labonte, left, and Casey Clark collaborated with professor Ali Abedi to develop the leak detector box prototypes.

“Our goal is to push the boundaries of hardware and software to design a highly accurate, ultra-low-power and lightweight autonomous leak detection and localization system for ISS,” says Abedi, who directs the WiSe-Net Lab.

Similar systems on the market require astronauts to walk around with a device, scanning walls to detect holes. The UMaine prototype offers a “set-it-and-forget-it” solution, says Clark of Old Town, Maine, who graduated in May and begins work this summer as a ground segment engineer at SpaceX in Hawthorne, California.

“This is the first step in a very progressive movement to monitor structural parameters of spacecraft and the ISS,” says Labonte of Rumford, Maine.

The prototype, developed by Clark and Labonte, includes components that were both created with a 3-D printer and bought off the shelf. Their work followed that of UMaine Ph.D. student Joel Castro and postdoctoral fellow Hossein Roufarshbaf, who developed a leak localization algorithm in a previous NASA EPSCoR project.

The additional funding allowed the researchers to make the system more rugged and capable for microgravity environment testing at the NASA Johnson Space Center and, ultimately, onboard the ISS.

ISS astronauts will install the three identical boxes that will collect data for two intervals of about 30 hours.

While the hardware is in space, the UMaine team will be on standby until data collection is completed.

“The system is designed to be automated. So we do not interact with the device during onboard operations,” Clark says.

NASA will send the information to UMaine researchers for analysis and processing.

Once the hardware returns to Earth on a re-entry vehicle sometime next year, the team will observe how well the devices survived the launch, deployment and return, with the intention of proposing a new design for the next generation, the researchers say.

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