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Using a doll, ash from Mount St. Helens and innovation, a WSU team is being funded by NASA to study moon dust

For Ian Wells and his team of Washington State University students, their foray into NASA-funded lunar research in the coming months could involve running a space-tech laundromat for Astronaut Barbie.

The group is one of seven university teams nationwide awarded funding through NASA’s latest Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge to help devise a way to mitigate moon dust. This year’s challenge comes amid the agency’s goal for the Artemis program to land the first female astronaut and next male astronaut on the moon by 2024.

Awarded approximately $130,000, Wells’ team will advance their idea of using liquid nitrogen to clean spacesuits of lunar dust. Their work is centered on the Leidenfrost effect: When a liquid contacts a surface that’s a temperature significantly beyond the liquid’s boiling point, the Leidenfrost effect occurs when that liquid produces an insulating vapor to keep it from boiling rapidly.

Before presenting their findings to NASA and industry experts in November, Wells said he and his team at WSU’s Hydrogen Properties for Energy Research (HYPER) Lab plan to test a one-sixth-scale model of their system – using a doll in a spacesuit sewn with fabrics astronauts have actually worn.

“I feel like my time at the lab has definitely been filled with serendipity,” Wells said. “All of these things have happened, and I’ve been the right person in the right place at the right time to pursue them, including this NASA thing.”

Wells was a freshman when he started working at the HYPER Lab, the only cryogenic hydrogen research lab in U.S. academia, said WSU professor Jake Leachman, HYPER’s founder.

The road to the BIG Idea Challenge started earlier, however, when Leachman interviewed Wells for the HYPER job in October 2019. Wells, who participated in the Idaho Science and Aerospace Scholars program while attending Timberline High School in Boise, was advised to apply to HYPER as he hopes one day to work for NASA.

“I really want to do something that helps a lot of people. I feel like research is a good way to do that – especially if it’s dealing with space exploration and space travel,” he said. “I think that there is a lot of know-how and there’s getting to be a will to go to space more, and I think that helping humanity explore space more is probably what I want to do.”

When Wells mentioned in his interview that he enjoyed photography, Leachman brought up Schlieren imaging, which photographs fluids or gasses at varying densities. The following summer, Leachman suggested Wells develop a Schlieren camera while at home since most of HYPER’s summertime research activities were on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wells said he used a 3D printer and the internet to build a “jig” for a DSLR camera to take Schlieren photographs. He then used the camera to image droplets scattering and picking up dust across the HYPER Lab floor – something the lab does to demonstrate the Leidenfrost effect to visitors, Leachman said.

That NASA’s latest BIG Idea Challenge involved similar concepts was simply a coincidence, Wells said.

“Looking back now, my path looks very linear,” he said, “but when I was in the thick of it, it was not clear at all.”

Leachman added, “It wasn’t just Ian Wells. The rest of the team is almost entirely freshmen and sophomores. Together, they make a complete team.”

Team members include Camden Butikofer, Nathaniel Swets and Lauren Reising, mechanical engineering undergraduates; John Bussey, an undergraduate in materials science and chemical engineering; and graduate students Stasia Kulsa and Gregory Wallace. Their advisers are Leachman and professors John McCloy and Konstantin Matveev from the WSU School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering.

With the group assembled and the idea in place, one major hurdle loomed: Where do you get moon dust?

Owning lunar material collected by astronauts is illegal per federal law, Leachman said, while the simulants used by NASA are expensive and hard to obtain.

Once again, luck would have it that Wells and his team would find the next best thing right in their backyard.

As it turns out, volcanic ash from Mount St. Helens is structurally similar to moon dust. When McCloy mentioned the tidbit during the team’s search for a simulant, Leachman said he was reminded of a WSU news article about how university students collected nearly 100 barrels of ash when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980.

After a few calls, the team retrieved what they needed from one of WSU’s research barns about 12 miles from Pullman.

“The Mount St. Helens ash was a neat twist,” Leachman said. “We just had the right people in the right place and the right time.”

Wells said the team submitted a proof of concept to NASA in December following hundreds of hours of work. They got the news more than a month later.

“I’m very thankful to everyone on and off the team who has helped make it happen,” Wells said. “I think that it is really putting the WSU engineering program on the map, which is good, I think, because it has definitely provided me with a lot of opportunities, so I’m glad that WSU and the HYPER Lab are getting the recognition they deserve. I’m so proud of our whole team for putting this together.”

Emphasizing the strong competition WSU students overcame from universities nationwide, Leachman said the result goes to show that despite what some might lead young people to believe, not everything has been seen or done.

“When you put some really neat tech in the hands of some really young engineers, they don’t know that yet,” he said, “and they’ll show you things that you didn’t know were possible.”

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