Iowa State University
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News Service

News Service:

Annette Hacker, director,
(515) 294-3720

Office: (515) 294-4777

10-05-05

Contacts:

Atul Kelkar, Mechanical Engineering, (515) 294-0788

Mike Krapfl, News Service, (515) 294-4917

Controlling a spacecraft all the way to Jupiter's icy moons

AMES, Iowa -- The challenge is about as big as Jupiter, our solar system's biggest planet:

How do you control a flexible spacecraft that's up to 200 feet long, will take seven years to get to its deep-space destination and needs pinpoint control to move it and its science payload from moon to moon to moon?

Atul Kelkar, an Iowa State University professor of mechanical engineering, is part of the team that's been addressing that problem for the past two years.

And although NASA has suspended that proposed mission and replaced it with a mission to the moon, Kelkar and other team members think their technology will be launched into space one day.

The team has been working on a proposed Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, a part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Prometheus project. It would be powered and propelled by a nuclear reactor and electric ion engines. It would carry instruments to study three of Jupiter's moons: Callisto, Ganymede and Europa. It would look for signs of life-supporting water, thermal energy and organic chemicals.

Kelkar joined researchers from NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on the project's Attitude and Articulation Control System team. The team has completed fundamental engineering work and simulations to establish the technical specifications for the spacecraft's control system and structural design. NASA has supported Kelkar's work on the project with $392,000 in research grants.

Don Soloway, a research scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, said Kelkar's work has been instrumental to the team. That's because Kelkar worked on a NASA project to design a control system for large space structures back in the 1980s. It turns out very few engineers have that background. And Soloway said that project's technology applied directly to the proposed Jupiter orbiter.

Ask about the Jupiter project and Kelkar turns to his computer and calls up images of the spacecraft, illustrations showing flexibility and vibration tests of spacecraft parts and charts detailing simulations of the spacecraft's performance. He points to all the pictures and explains the details. And he says it's an exciting project to be working on.

Kelkar has been involved with NASA projects since he was a doctoral student at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., where he researched the control of flexible space structures. He also worked as a postdoctoral research associate at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., from 1994 to 1996.

And from what he can see of the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter mission from his office at Iowa State, Kelkar said the project is technically challenging, but certainly possible.

"I don't have doubt -- with the past history and experience we have -- that this can go," he said. "The problem is the commitment of Congress to keep a project alive for so many years."

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Quick look

Atul Kelkar, an Iowa State University professor of mechanical engineering, has helped develop technology that would conrol a proposed spacecraft all the way to three of Jupiter's moons.

Quote

"I don't have a doubt -- with the past history and experience we have -- that this can go. The problem is the commitment of Congress to keep a project alive for so many years."

Atul Kelkar, Iowa State University professor of mechanical engineering