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Nuclear scientist Nathan Jerred has received NASA funding to develop a low-cost rocket design that could make exploration economical enough for universities and industries to conduct space research.

Former INL intern receives NASA funding for space exploration technology

By Alexandra Branscombe for INL Communications & Governmental Affairs

Like a child building a macaroni rocket destined for the far reaches of the solar system, when Nathan Jerred talks about space exploration his eyes light up and his hands move to paint pictures of alien landscapes. But instead of penne or other Italian fare, this intern-turned-nuclear scientist is building real rockets for his first NASA-funded research project.

 
  Within the pressure test
  vessel, a hose at the top
  feeds the prototype with
  gas, which is exhausted
  through the bottom.

Jerred, a researcher with the Idaho National Laboratory's Center for Space Nuclear Research (CSNR), recently received funding from NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) to create a low-mass space propulsion system that could send research rockets into the solar system. The propulsion system will use radioisotopes and a gas propellant to create a low-cost rocket design that could make exploration economical enough for universities and industries to conduct space research.

"We want to create a propulsion system for a small [scientific] payload, which can create more access for in-space travel and research," said Jerred, who works at the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES).

Jerred, who interned with the Center for Space Nuclear Research a few years ago, epitomizes the goals of the center's and INL's research fellowships — to enable internal-student research projects until they gain support outside of CAES. Jerred never would have guessed that a project he worked on a few years ago would soon launch him to the cusp of his own successful career in space exploration.

Taking a new career path

In the summer of 2009 Jerred gambled on his future. Instead of taking a full-time industrial engineering job on the East Coast, the recent University of Idaho graduate decided to try out the field of space nuclear research. He moved to Idaho Falls and spent the next 10 weeks as a CSNR research fellow working on a space-based nuclear reactors concept. By the end of the summer he was hooked.

With the help of CSNR's Next Degree program, Jerred began a master's degree in nuclear engineering and continued to conduct space nuclear research. "The Next Degree program allows students to get some income and also pursue their master's or Ph.D.," said Steven Howe, the director of CSNR. He said that for students who need to support themselves financially, this is an excellent transition opportunity to work in a laboratory part-time, while also working on their thesis. This is a unique system in the country, and CAES works closely with the University of Idaho to help support scientists while they continue their education.

His research focus shifted to the Mars Hopper Project, funded by INL's Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program. The hopper is a planetary exploration probe designed to "hop" across the Mars landscape using a carbon-dioxide propellant heated by a radioisotope core to rocket off to each new location and collect samples.

  
This prototype is also the
base for Jerred’s nuclear-
powered mini rockets.
"We can do sample collection in areas that are not 'safe' areas," he said. "Hoppers allow researchers to take more risks because they are less expensive technologies, and nuclear energy is not limited by sunlight, so they can navigate canyons, craters and mountains."

Over eight years the Mars rovers have travelled only around 40 kilometers (25 miles) collectively, Jerred explained, so it is time to start exploration on a wider scale. "If the first explorers in America only took samples in a 40-kilometer radius when they reached the shores, they would have had no idea of the resources that are actually there," he said. Exploration probes like the hopper would be able to give scientists a more complete understanding of Earth's red neighbor.

When research takes off

After Jerred completed his master's, also finishing his role in the Mars Hopper Project, Howe hired him as a research scientist. His professional career barely underway, Jerred's momentum propelled him forward — into a venture of his own.

Building off the radioisotope technology developed by the Mars Hopper team, Jerred designed a conceptual project for a low-mass, in-space propulsion system. Similar to the hopper, a radioisotope core would heat a gas propellant that would power small rockets across the solar system. The rockets would carry a variety of "CubeSats," 10 cm cube-shaped miniature satellites designed to collect a variety of data to send back to Earth.

Designed to be a simplified satellite, the CubeSat makes it possible to produce technology for space exploration at a low cost and in a small size. Combining the CubeSats with a lightweight and easily maneuverable propulsion system would make general space research more economical.

"We need to try to figure out how to accomplish more exploration with fewer resources," Jerred said. He hopes this affordable technology can lead the way for undergraduate students to do scientific studies in space. "Imagine recruiting students to do space exploration research because their college has a rocket with their logo on it, collecting data while it orbits a planet."

Flying forward

Jerred sets up the hopper prototype within a pressure vessel, which  provides power and gas to the prototype for testing.

Jerred's proposal was one of only 12 projects NASA selected for funding out of some 500 applications. The NIAC provides $100,000 for the first year, during which Jerred's team will conduct system analysis, perform simulation modeling and optimize system design on the propulsion system. By next June, the team hopes to receive continued funding for phase two, which will move into the component design and experimental phases.

The fortunate thing, Jerred explained, is that the Mars hopper is a base for the propulsion technology the team hopes to develop. Making modifications and minimal changes will save them both time and money to keep the project moving forward.

"The NIAC funding award is a two-way success story for INL and CSNR," said Howe. Jerred, who went from being a research fellow to writing proposals for NASA, "is the best example of the success of our research fellows program. It is a success story for LDRD as well." Since Jerred's work utilizes the hopper innovations in a new design. The goal of LDRD projects is to eventually find sustaining financial support from outside entities, such as the NIAC award.

"I spent two years working on the hopper, and I am really happy I can continue to mature the technology," said Jerred.

Looking back to the beginning of his journey with CSNR, Jerred can barely imagine coming this far so quickly, when he had been so close to choosing a different path. His advice to other students is to "put yourself out there and see where it leads — in some cases, it takes you to places you never would have thought about."

(Posted Oct. 21, 2013)

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