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News

Georgia Tech aerospace students is testing a new micro-gravity manufacturing process

Georgia Institute Of Technology : 04 May, 2001  (New Product)
A team of Georgia Tech aerospace students is testing a new micro-gravity manufacturing process called 'acoustic shaping' that turns sounds waves into construction machines. The team's initial findings indicate that sound could one day be used in space to build complex structures, such as space stations, from simple raw materials.
A team of Georgia Tech aerospace students is testing a new micro-gravity manufacturing process called 'acoustic shaping' that turns sounds waves into construction machines. The team's initial findings indicate that sound could one day be used in space to build complex structures, such as space stations, from simple raw materials.

In a series of experiments aboard NASA's KC-135 aircraft, Georgia Tech's AcLev Micro-gravity Team (www.adl.gatech.edu/aclev) tested the effects of intense sound on a variety of particles in near-zero gravity conditions. The team is now working to miniaturize and automate the experiment in order to test it aboard a NASA Space Shuttle mission scheduled for March 2002.

In conjunction with its research, the team is the identifying opportunities for start-up companies in setting up space-based manufacturing businesses that acoustically-manufacture structures in space.

'Advances in this type of technology could lead to viable methods for the space industry to manufacture parts and equipment entirely in space,' said the team's faculty advisor, aerospace engineering professor Narayanan Komerath. 'Acoustic shaping could usher in a new era of space-based manufacturing.'

The team is using the technology to form shapes from raw materials placed inside a rectangular box. Attached to the box are adjustable speakers and amplifiers that exert extremely high frequency on raw materials, as well as a computer, disks and cameras, said Adam Coker, project leader for the AcLev Micro-gravity team.

'All the primary parts of a space station can be built by using sound and the raw materials in that box,' he said.

The success of the concept of acoustic shaping in micro-gravity was first demonstrated by Georgia Tech students aboard the NASA KC-135 in 1997. They boarded the craft for additional experiments relating to acoustic shaping in 1998, 1999 and most recently in March.

While it has long been known that very powerful ultrasonic beams have the ability to lift objects, the Georgia Tech team is the first to explore what low-intensity, audible-frequency sound can do for the future of the space industry.

Four members of the Georgia Tech team conducted a battery of micro-gravity experiments aboard NASA's KC-135 aircraft on March 13 and 14 as a part of NASA's 'Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program.' The program gives teams of undergraduate and high school students the opportunity to test experiments in weightless conditions similar to space travel. The Georgia Tech team is composed of students from the Schools of Aerospace Engineering and the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The KC-135 aircraft flies over the Gulf of Mexico. During each two- to three-hour flight, the aircraft maneuvers through a series of about 40 steep climbs and descents, called parabolas. Depending on the precise trajectory flown by the plane, the passengers and their experiments can experience about 25 seconds of a near-zero-gravity environment on each parabola.

Although the experiments have been conducted on a minor scale, the implications could have a major impact on future of the aerospace engineering, Komerath said. Historically the space industry has stopped short of pursuing large scale manufacturing programs in space because the cost of delivering building materials to orbit is extremely cost prohibitive. Delivering one pound of material to orbit costs between $3,000 and $10,000, Komerath said.

'By reducing the cost of manufactured components to a fraction of the cost of earth-built or machined components,' Komerath said, 'acoustic shaping technology would provide an enabling resource for the development of a space-based economy.'
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