UMaine wireless leak detection system scheduled to launch to International Space Station

This December, a wireless leak detection system created by University of Maine researchers is scheduled to head to the International Space Station (ISS).

The prototype, which was tested by NASA and in the inflatable lunar habitat and Wireless Sensing Laboratory (WiSe-Net Lab) on campus, could lead to increased safety on ISS and in other space activities.

This is the first hardware from UMaine in recent history that is expected to function in space for a long period of time, according to the researchers.

On Friday, Dec. 9, the payload is expected to be launched by the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) in Tanegashima, Japan onboard an HTV6 rocket that resupplies ISS. The launch is scheduled for 10:26 p.m. Japan Standard Time (JST), according to the JAXA website. JST is 14 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.

To celebrate the event, members of the UMaine community are welcome to attend a free launch party at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Emera Astronomy Center on campus. The event will likely include presentations by the UMaine researchers involved in the project as well as footage of the launch provided by NASA TV.

UMaine researchers worked with NASA to prepare three of the wireless leak detector boxes for flight. Electrical engineering graduate students Casey Clark and Lonnie Labonte tested the payload and performed safety tests of the prototype at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

ISS astronauts will install the three identical boxes that will collect data for two intervals of about 30 hours. While the hardware is in space, the UMaine team will be on standby until data collection is completed. NASA will send the information directly to UMaine from the ISS beginning in late January or early February. Joel Castro, an electrical engineering Ph.D. student from Old Town, Maine, will process and analyze the data.

The project was one of five in the nation to receive funding from NASA–EPSCoR for research and technology development onboard ISS. Ali Abedi, a UMaine professor of electrical and computer engineering, was awarded the three-year, $100,000 NASA grant through the Maine Space Grant Consortium in 2014. Collaborators on the project include Vincent Caccese, a UMaine mechanical engineering professor, and George Nelson, director of the ISS Technology Demonstration Office at the NASA Johnson Space Center.

Leaks causing air and heat loss are a major safety concern for astronauts, according to Abedi. It is important to save the air when it comes to space missions — find the leak and fix it before it’s too late.

The project involves the development of a flight-ready wireless sensor system that can quickly detect and localize leaks based on ultrasonic sensor array signals. The device has six sensors that detect the frequency generated by the air as it escapes into space and triangulate the location of the leak using a series of algorithms. The device then saves the data on SD cards that are sent back to Earth.

The device is fast, accurate and capable of detecting multiple leaks and localizing them with a lightweight and low-cost system, according to Abedi, who directs the WiSe-Net Lab.

Similar systems on the market require astronauts to walk around with a device, scanning walls to detect holes. The UMaine prototype offers a “set-it-and-forget-it” solution, says Clark of Old Town, Maine, who graduated in May 2016 and now works as a ground segment engineer at SpaceX in Hawthorne, California.

“This is the first step in a very progressive movement to monitor structural parameters of spacecraft and the ISS,” says Labonte of Rumford, Maine, who graduates in December and will begin working for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland in January.

The prototype, developed by Clark and Labonte, includes components that were both created with a 3-D printer and bought off the shelf. Their work followed that of Castro and postdoctoral fellow Hossein Roufarshbaf, who developed a leak localization algorithm in a previous NASA-EPSCoR project.

Kenneth Bundy, of Minot, Maine, has been working with Abedi on a parallel grant to classify leaks by studying pattern recognition. Bundy, who has a bachelor’s degree in computer science and is pursuing a master’s in mathematics, analyzed leak scenarios with a variety of materials and pressure. His work aims to help the system determine the size of a leak, as well as what layer of material inside the ISS the leak is coming from, according to Abedi.

Once the hardware returns to Earth on a re-entry vehicle — most likely sometime next year — the team will observe how well the devices survived the launch, deployment and return, with the intention of proposing a new design for the next generation, the researchers say.

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747