NASA backs three Rice researchers

Graduate students win grants to study synthetic biology and solar flares, program Robonaut

Rice News staff

While Rice University celebrates 50 years of collaboration with NASA during this week’s Rice NASAversary, the agency is seeding the future with grants to three graduate students.

Dane Powell and Lucas Hartsough are among the first class of 81 students to receive Space Technology Research Fellowship Grants that will aid their pursuit of master’s or doctoral degrees in space technology disciplines.


Jeffrey Reep, a third-year graduate student of space physics and astronomy, has won an Earth and Space Science Fellowship, one of only seven awarded this year.

The one-year grants may be extended for up to three years.

Powell ’08 is continuing work on advanced robotics he began as an undergraduate in the lab of Marcia O’Malley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science. Powell’s task under the grant is to develop software for NASA’s Robonaut program.

The first Robonaut is in space. It launched aboard the last flight of the shuttle Discovery earlier this year to join the crew at the International Space Station (from which it’s tweeting). “It’s one of the most advanced robots in the world,” Powell said. “And it’s a paradigm shift for NASA. Traditionally, their robots have been rovers. Not to belittle them, but compared with Robonaut, they’re kind of like RC cars.”

Powell hopes to develop human-Robonaut interfaces that follow two paths. One would be a haptic interface by which the robot would mimic the controller’s moves, a la “Avatar.” The second would be software to control multiple Robonauts at once.



Powell said his childhood dream was to be an astronaut. “Then I grew to be 6-foot-2, and they still don’t take anybody over 72 inches. But I’m still interested in NASA and have always wanted to be a part of it. I’m thrilled that it’s finally happening.”

He expects to work on programming for the next two semesters and will spend a 10-week internship at NASA’s Johnson Space Center next summer.

Hartsough, an Arizona native, brings an interest in synthetic biology to Rice from the California Institute of Technology, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in the spring. His proposal to NASA, made after he was accepted at Rice, focused on re-engineering bacteria “to do useful things in space, specifically to harvest certain minerals,” he said.

“The thing about life that makes it so attractive for applications in space is that it’s self-directing and self-reproducing,” he said. “You don’t have to take a bunch of stuff up there, you just take cells or genetic material and send it there.”

Hartsough said Earth-bound bioengineers have already used bacteria in the creation of bricks for habitation. That kind of project in space “would need to interface with other elements NASA’s working on. But in the middle and long term, they could use it for really cool stuff.”

Reep will use hydrodynamic modeling programs by his adviser, Stephen Bradshaw, assistant professor and the William V. Vietti Junior Chair of Space Physics, and will carry out solar observations with the assistance of Rice’s David Alexander, professor of physics and astronomy, to analyze solar-flare spectra.

“We want to know two basic things about solar flares,” he said. First, what drives them?” He said there are two competing ideas: thermal heating conduction, with heat flowing downward from the  corona and boiling off the top layers of the chromosphere, and beam heating, in which flares are powered by beams of energetic particlesdepositing their energy in the chromosphere and leading to an explosive evaporation of plasma.

“Second, the whole reason to study any of this is to solve the solar coronal heating problem: Why is thesun’s atmosphere so hot?” Reep said. “The surface of the sun is about 5,800 kelvins, but as you go upwards — and this is counterintuitive — the temperature goes up.”

The Syracuse, N.Y., native, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Cornell University, will make use of spectral readings from the Hinode solar satellite, gamma ray readings from the Fermi telescopeand observations from the space-based STEREO observatories.


About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.