Research & Innovation

Carving Out a Space with NASA

How Stevens is partnering with America's lead space agency to examine climate change, monitor astronauts, develop planetary roving and landing technologies... and more

Mars' Perseverance mission landing parachute, on which Stevens researcher worked
The Perseverance Mars mission's special parachute was computationally tested by Stevens professor Jason Rabinovitch pre-mission [Credit: NASA/Caltech-JPL]

For decades, Stevens alumnus Aaron Cohen M.S. '58 Hon. D.Eng. '82 directed the Apollo lunar programs and, eventually, the entire Space Shuttle program for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

That legacy continues today: the university's relationship with NASA has never been stronger.

Stevens graduates continue to rise to top positions at the agency, while faculty researchers continue receiving regular funding support from NASA and work closely with NASA scientists on projects ranging from robots, modules and vehicles to mathematical modeling, landing-site selection and terrestrial satellite image processing.

image of the Earth from space

Sharper eyes on climate change

Stevens physicist Knut Stamnes works with NASA to improve its satellite imagery of the Earth's landforms and oceans so that we can monitor for signs of global warming or other planetary change — which can be difficult when weather, cloud cover, dust and other conditions interfere.

Stamnes, director of the university’s Light and Life Lab, introduced a new mathematical algorithm for predicting how radiation transfers through layered material in the 1980s. Today he works with satellite imagery processing, utilizing techniques that algorithmically sharpen our understanding of ice and snow cover in polar regions and the phytoplankton living in the world's oceans.

With Stevens quantum physicist Yuping Huang, Stamnes also recently contributed to research assessing the thickness of both the Antarctic ice sheet and Arctic sea ice. Working with scientists at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia and the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, as well as researchers at the University of Arizona, the University of Maryland and several private companies, Stamnes and Huang helped refine models that draw on lidar (light detecting and ranging) measurement data collected by NASA's orbiting ICESat-2 satellite.

Stevens doctoral candidate Jiuyi Zhang was also honored by NASA in its 2021 annual report for related work in photonics, developing a novel method for measuring the absorption spectra in the atmosphere.

Vital signs such as heartbeat, on a screen

Better vital-sign monitors

Stevens electrical and computer engineering professor Negar Tavassolian leverages specially focused radars and conventional cameras to develop a new type of wireless monitor for heartbeat and respiration that could benefit astronauts, flight crews — and, eventually, all of us.

Tavassolian, supported in part by a NASA grant and working with the Hoboken-based technology firm Autonomous Healthcare, has created algorithmic systems that focus the radar antenna's scanning beams more precisely on the chest and abdomen. In early tests, the system obtained high accuracy even when viewing individuals or clusters in a simulated spacecraft environment moving in different positions and at different angles to the system.

image of the surface of a moon of Saturn

Safer landings on Mars, Venus and Saturn

While at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California — a part of NASA, managed by Caltech — Stevens professor Jason Rabinovitch supported the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission in a variety of different roles. From delivering flight hardware and supporting parachute testing, to analysis for the preservation of collected samples, to testing the Mars helicopter Ingenuity and even modeling the interaction between the rocket engines and the Martian surface (made up of particles covering solid rock), he was involved with many aspects of the mission.

Rabinovitch continues that work at Stevens, including recent work modeling the large 20-meter-diameter supersonic parachutes used to land spacecraft on Mars.

He makes additional calculations in collaboration with JPL for mission concepts that could soon explore Venus — a much hotter, bumpier and trickier planet to target. He's helping NASA narrow down potential landing zones by analyzing historical satellite and radar images of the planet's surface, applying image processing and statistical techniques to those images to determine rock distribution and size on the planet's surface as well as other physical features that could complicate landings.

Rabinovitch also has his eye on computaional modeling of plumes on one of Saturn's moons (Enceladus) as the U.S. considers potential future Saturnian missions, as well.

Satellite image of a hurricane from space

Quicker, better information during emergencies

Systems professor Paul Grogan works with NASA’s Earth Science Technology Office as a principal investigator on a project to build a new system that will enable earth scientists to test, evaluate and develop technologies for observing conditions on Earth.

The project, known as the New Observing Strategies Testbed (NOS-T), will integrate information from many sources to automate decisions about space-based observation operations.

One example: during floods, certain lower-resolution satellite images could be integrated with more powerful ground-based sensors to confirm local conditions, then tap into higher-resolution commercial satellites temporarily to gather additional imagery during disaster response — all automated, and in real time.

Keeping space stations running

Stevens alumnus Ron Cobbs M.Eng. ’12 directs avionics and payloads as a chief engineer on the famed International Space Station (ISS), which has orbited Earth with a changing mix of international astronauts and scientists, modules and equipment since 1998.

Cobbs’ decorated career at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston spans more than three decades. In 2014 he was awarded the Director’s Commendation Award — the highest honor given by the space center — and Cobbs says his Stevens master's degree and graduate certificate in systems engineering fueled his rapid rise within the organization.

"We design, develop, build and test complex systems that go into space to support human space flight," explains Cobbs. "Systems engineering affects all aspects of each system."

Mary McCabe M.Eng. '09 is another highly placed Stevens graduate at JSC. McCabe, now acting associate division chief of the center's Crew and Thermal Systems Division, has worked for NASA since she was a Texas undergraduate.

Today McCabe continues to focus on systems that enable crew communication, safety and monitoring, and she also participated in technical updates to the space shuttle following the 2003 Columbia accident that now allow NASA to monitor the shuttle's structural condition more comprehensively, in real time, during missions.

Stevens faculty member William Shepherd, as a NASA shuttle commander

Astronaut expertise

Stevens visiting senior research scientist (and former Navy SEAL) Captain William Shepherd flew four space missions for NASA, including his flight as  Commander of the first International Space Station crew. He was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor for his work organizing the space station program and a 4 ½-month mission in orbit with his crew.

Today Capt. Shepherd is on the university's Systems Engineering Research Center (SERC) staff, where he helps manage SERC's "Capstone Marketplace." Shepherd shares his knowledge and experiences from several technical disciplines with student engineers, and mentors them as they pursue their senior design projects.

Lunar and planetary roving

Stevens student teams also have a long and successful history of competing in NASA-sponsored challenges, including a 2019 team that placed second in the nation in the agency's Moon to Mars Ice & Prospecting Challenge with a semi-autonomous roving robot that can extract water from ice deposits buried beneath simulated Martian or lunar soils with a special copper-tipped drill.

The prototype, code-named DEIMOS (Drill-based Extraction of Ice-water and Martian Overburden System), was recognized for producing the clearest water in the competition as well as the most accurate digital core samples. Mechanical engineering professor Eric Williams advised the team, which received a $10,000 stipend from NASA as well as additional sponsorship from Protolabs, a leading digital manufacturing source for rapid prototypes.

More recent student projects entering NASA competitions included a lunar-roving project designed for especially sandy environments. That team's design incorporates fins to keep the unit stable while traveling or sampling on sandy surfaces — and was showcased at the university's 2022 Innovation Expo in May.