Technology developed by an Aggie and built with the help of Texas A&M students was used on the International Space Station recently, bringing the Aggie spirit to outer space.
The special tubelike machine system, known as STRATA 1, was developed by T-STAR, a company owned by Matt Leonard, class of 1986, and built at the company's Downtown Bryan facility. STRATA 1 allows astronauts in the International Space Station to study regolith -- a dusty material of which many asteroids are composed -- in zero gravity and watch how it bonds and breaks.
Leonard has worked in aerospace science for 30 years and once worked as an engineer with NASA. In 2014, he decided to bring the space industry to Aggieland and created T-STAR. Through the business, he has worked with Texas A&M, Blinn College and local high schools as the company manufactures new types of satellites and other space technology.
"I'm here in Bryan because I'm an Aggie, but ultimately because our company is trying to excite the next generation about the space industry," Leonard said.
NASA recently approached Leonard about creating the technology needed to perform specific experiments in the International Space Station involving the study of gravity and regolith.
"This technology is about astronomical materials," he said, "and how regolith behaves in a zero-gravity environment -- regolith being a fancy name for dirt that's not found on Earth. When we go to an asteroid and dock there to collect samples, we need to know how the dirt we land on is going to behave."
Leonard said it's important for astronauts to understand how dirt on asteroids will react to a spacecraft landing, or else the rock could be destroyed if not handled correctly by man-made machines.
"Because I was overseeing the project, NASA was OK with [Texas A&M students] working on it," Leonard said. "They've done a couple of other projects with the university before, so it was OK."
T-STAR designed the invention, and Texas A&M students Dakotah Karrer and Vincent Rodriguez, both members of the class of 2016, worked under supervision of Leonard and their professor, Joseph Morgan, in assembling STRATA 1. Starting in late 2015, the students assembled STRATA 1 in just four months, a short period for putting together a project, Leonard noted. The STRATA 1 launched and reached the space station in late April, and on Tuesday he said he received positive feedback from NASA scientists.
"The NASA scientists were really excited because the regolith did not behave how they thought it would," he said.
Scientists had expected larger, denser pieces of regolith to sink to the bottom of the tube apparatus on STRATA 1, but instead, large and small pieces were mixed evenly throughout, Leonard said, which surprised the astronauts. Further testing is scheduled.
Leonard noted this will not be the last major piece of innovative space technology to come down the pike through T-STAR for NASA or other partnering independent space companies. In the near future, Leonard also hopes to keep working with both local K-12 and college students to inspire them to get excited about the space industry.
"Part of our push is to let students know that if they're interested in space, they don't have to be in just engineering," Leonard said.
Aggieland's involvement in outer space could reach stellar heights, Leonard said, as there is interest in putting a space control center in Bryan-College Station.
"It's very feasible," he said. "We're putting plans together to make that happen."