New Investigators Program

The NC Space Grant New Investigators Program is designed to provide seed funding to faculty who are striving to conduct research that is directly aligned with NASA’s priorities. This program is primarily focused upon funding investigators who have yet to become established researchers or are attempting to branch out in new directions. By doing so, NC Space Grant contributes to building the intellectual capital and knowledge base of the state of North Carolina.


Photo of Dr. Jonathan Bird   Electromagnetic Launch Assistance for Space Vehicles Using Electrodynamic Wheels

PI: Dr. Jonathan Bird, UNC - Charlotte

An ongoing constraint to the success and growth of future space exploration and commerce is the cost of getting into space. The first-generation of reusable launch vehicles, the space shuttle, had a launch cost to low earth orbit of approximately $10,000 per pound. Electromagnetic launch assistance (EMLA) technology has the potential to significantly reduce this launch cost. The concept of EMLA involves using a linear motor driven sled to provide an initial horizontal velocity to a spacecraft so that it can attain an initial take-off velocity in the range of 600mph (0.8 mach). By using electromagnetic energy the onboard fuel cost can be reduced. Furthermore, only a single stage rocket would be needed. This project will assess the feasibility of using a novel EMLA system using electrodynamic wheels (EDWs). An EDW is a radially magnetized magnetic rotor that is simultaneously rotated and translationally moved above a conductive sheet guideway, such as aluminum. The rotational and translational motion induces eddy-currents within the aluminum sheet guideway that give rise to both suspension and thrust/braking forces. The potential advantage of using EDWs for EMLA is that the guideway cost can be relatively low; however the complexity of the launch sled will increase. The suitability of using EDWs for EMLA will be assessed by using numerical analysis and sub-scale experimental testing. Both graduate and undergraduate students will be involved in this project.


Photo of Dr. Suzanna L. Brauer Microbial Signatures as a Tool to Aid the Search for Life in the Universe

PI: Dr. Suzanna L. Brauer, Appalachian State University

A primary aim of NASA’s Mars Rover Missions, and one of the “Big Questions” of the Science Mission Directorate, is to determine if life exists or ever existed on Mars or elsewhere. The central goal of the proposed research is to obtain a better understanding of two microbial processes that are among those most likely to occur (or previously occurred) on Mars: 1) Mn oxidation and 2) methane production. The research will be carried out in environments analogous to those on Mars: subterranean carbonate (karst) caves and near-surface terrestrial wetland environments. Results of my proposed research (along with the results of NC Space Grant recipient Sarah Carmichael's related research) will support NASA missions by providing a better understanding of 1) the diversity of microorganisms that can produce methane and oxidize manganese, 2) the diversity of Mn oxide mineral structures and morphologies produced by a diversity of novel microorganisms, and which might be likely to be detected in different environments on Mars, and 3) which types of methanogens are likely to be present under specific environmental conditions (pH, temperature, etc.) on earth with application to their potential presence on other planets.


Photo of Dr. Sarah Carmichael Mn Oxides as Biosignatures in Subsurface Environments

PI: Dr. Sarah Carmichael, Appalachian State University

Most astrobiologists agree that if life exists on Mars, it will likely be found in the subsurface, and it is probably microbial. The goal of this research, which will be carried out in conjunction with another NC Space Grant award recipient, Dr. Suzanna Bräuer, is to determine the extent and role of microbes, fungi, and hydrothermal fluids in Mn oxide mineralization in both modern and ancient subsurface systems. This research will compare the crystallinities, crystal chemistries, and crystal morphologies of both modern and ancient samples of Mn oxides from a variety of subsurface environments - those known to have biologically mediated Mn oxidation, such as caves, and those assumed to have abiotic Mn oxidation, such as hydrothermal ore deposits. We will use the carbonate-hosted caves and hydrothermal deposits in the southern Appalachians as a Martian analogue, a comparison which is justified by recent observations of sedimentary carbonates, methane-production (possibly due to hydrothermal fluid flow), and similar karst topography on Mars. If ancient hydrothermal Mn oxidation in the southern Appalachians also appears to be biologically mediated, this not only is evidence that Mn oxidizing microbes are more wide-spread than previously thought and can withstand more extreme environmental conditions than is currently observed, but it is further evidence that Martian Mn oxides - if present - could also be biological in origin, even if they are associated with hydrothermal activity.


Photo of Dr. Fei Yan Surface Plasmon-based Colorimetric Detection of Reactive Oxygen Species: Assessing Radiation Damage to Astronauts on Extended Space Missions

PI: Dr. Fei Yan, NC Central University

The objective of this proposed study is to develop a novel sensing strategy using plasmonic colorimetry for visual detection of reactive oxygen species (ROS), particularly hydrogen peroxide (H2O2). Space radiation is one of the primary environmental hazards associated with space flight. Because astronauts are constantly exposed to space radiation at a low dose-rate during long-term stays in space. Oxidative stress caused by space radiation is closely tied to overproduction of ROS, which is known to induce damage to nuclear and mitochondrial DNA, proteins, and lipids. Conventional biomarkers for evaluating the biological effects of space radiation on human health include: transepithelial membrane resistance, measurement of membrane sheer, products of lipid peroxidation, DNA adduct formation, and chromosomal aberrations. Currently, there is no rapid, simple, and economical means for the detection of any of the afore-mentioned biomarkers, and real-time monitoring of these biomarkers remains elusive. The hypothesis of this proposal is that cellular H2O2 can be used as an excellent surrogate indicator for radiation exposure/damage, and the proposed plasmonic colorimetry will provide the simplest and most robust approach to continuous monitoring of cellular H2O2 in real time.