UMaine Space announces new seed grant awardees

The UMaine Space Initiative is pleased to announce recipients of a new seed grant program created to encourage innovative and interdisciplinary collaborations that result in rapid planning, team development, and research coordination in supported topical areas. 

UMaine Space administers an Ideas Lab program for the state of Maine, funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Maine Space Grant Consortium (MSGC) Ideas Lab, and UMaine’s Office of Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School

Selected projects support multidisciplinary and multi-institutional teams convening around a topic relevant to MSGC, space and aerospace research, and the economic vitality of Maine. For consideration, project PIs are required to have prior discussions with program administrators, and participation is limited to participants in the MSGC Ideas Lab program.

The Ideas Lab is a program that brings together a diverse group of researchers for a few days to brainstorm and develop innovative approaches for advancing Maine’s involvement in space exploration. Its goal is to identify and support multidisciplinary, team-based R&D and educational projects that align with the priorities of NASA Mission Directorates and MSGC’s priority areas.

Associate Vice President for Research Ali Abedi, who leads the UMaine Space Initiative, also manages the Ideas Lab on behalf of MSGC. 

“Space research is highly interdisciplinary and complex, calling for researchers from various fields to come together. Funded by NASA, Maine Space Grant Consortium,  and UMaine Space, these seed grants enable collaborative research on some of these critical problems,” he says. Abedi also serves as director of the Center for Undergraduate Research.

Brief summaries of the projects selected in the first two rounds of funding:

Autonomous UAVs for crop monitoring in the state of Maine
Researchers from UMaine include Vikas Dhiman, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, Yongjiang Zhang, assistant professor of applied plant physiology will collaborate with Umesh Hodeghatta, Roux Institute, Northeastern University assistant teaching professor.

The goal of this project is to improve techniques for collecting and analyzing data on wild blueberry plant physiology using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Semi-autonomous UAVs will be used to collect multi-spectral and thermal imagery that can be compared to satellite data on forest and crop health. The project consists of two stages: data collection and registration using autonomous UAVs, and interpretation, analysis, and visualization of the data to evaluate plant physiology. Both stages will be conducted concurrently, with the results of one feeding into the other. While the use of UAVs to collect data on forest canopies is already common, the challenge lies in automating the technology to efficiently cover a designated area.

Bioprinted blueberry plant cells as a multi-use product for long-term space exploration
Collaborators from UMaine include Bashir Khoda, associate professor of mechanical engineering, Doug Currie, associate professor of biological sciences, Justin Lapp, assistant professor of design mechanical engineering, and Yongjiang Zhang, assistant professor of applied plant physiology.

The long duration of space exploration presents a challenge in managing radiation risk for astronauts, both inside and outside of habitats and vehicles. One way to mitigate this risk is through the use of shielding and biologically derived antioxidants. Blueberry plant cells, which contain high levels of anthocyanin, offer a potential source of these antioxidants. In this project, a team of four researchers will investigate the potential for using blueberry cells, cultivated at high density through 3D bioprinting, as a source of antioxidants and as radiation shielding layers. The team will identify the plant cell type, develop a bio-ink formulation and bio-printing protocol, determine the properties and model the radiation interaction in bio-printed plant cell structures, and investigate the anthocyanins compound for neuron radiation mitigation. If successful, this project will advance the understanding of factors regulating plant cell differentiation and growth in harsh environments and provide a new option for radiation mitigation on Earth and in space.

Aerospace Science and Technology in Secondary Schools (ASTSS)
Researchers at UMaine Wilhelm Alexander Friess, associate professor of mechanical engineering, Seth Campbell, associate professor of glaciology, Parinaz Rahimzadeh, assistant professor in remote sensing of natural resources, Shawn Laatsch, director of Versant Power Astronomy Center, Yongjiang Zhang, assistant professor of applied plant physiology, and Vikas Dhiman, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering will collaborate with Michael Davis, University of Southern Maine lecturer in mechanical engineering, Barbara Stewart, Bangor High School science department head, and Dan Moore, Southern Maine Community College professor and chair of biological sciences.

The Aerospace Science and Technology in Secondary Schools (ASTSS) program is designed to increase interest and knowledge in STEM fields related to aerospace among secondary school students. This is important for addressing the shortage of skilled workers in the aerospace industry and promoting diversity in the field. The ASTSS program uses research-based teaching methods and experiential learning to engage students in exploring the science behind unmanned aerial systems (UAS), also known as drones. Through this program, students will have the opportunity to participate in community-based projects using UAS to address local issues such as agriculture, water quality, and coastal erosion. The ASTSS team will work with the Bangor High School STEM Academy to pilot the program and develop curricular materials for high school students and teachers. The goal is to eventually expand the program to other schools across the country.

Robust lifelong learning to improve the health of aquatic ecosystems
Researchers from UMaine Salimeh Yasaei Sekeh, assistant professor of computer science, and Vikas Dhiman, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, will collaborate with Nima Pahlevan, Science System and Applications (SSAI) at the Terrestrial Information Systems Lab of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) remote sensing scientist.

This project presents a new way to address the problem of harmful algal blooms caused by cyanobacteria, which can harm the quality of water in lakes, rivers, and oceans. Algal blooms are difficult to track because new characteristics, such as phycocyanin features, are constantly being added. Current deep learning approaches that use hyperspectral images (HSI) are limited to static situations where no new information is added. This project aims to improve the ability to handle new information and to better understand algal blooms by using techniques such as lifelong learning (LL), which allows a system to continue learning and solving new problems as more information becomes available. The project also aims to make the system more robust by protecting it against poor data caused by clouds, sunlight, and other factors. Additionally, the project will work on improving the accuracy of measurements of phycocyanin concentration using HSI and overcoming challenges such as atmospheric effects and instrument noise.

New crops for space exploration
Collaborators from UMaine include Stephanie Burnett, associate professor of horticulture, Jacob Schwab, graduate research assistant, and Mary Ellen Camire, professor of food science and human nutrition.

During space travel, particularly for long-term missions, fresh vegetables and herbs grown by astronauts provide more flavor and nutrition than prepackaged food. Most of the work exploring new crops for hydroponic production has focused on commercial greenhouse production. In commercial production, there is much more room to grow crops. Further, the focus of greenhouse food production is on economic efficiency and profitability. This limits the variety of crops grown in commercial hydroponics to a small number of high-value crops, including leafy greens, herbs, tomatoes, and peppers. The goal for space agriculture would be to grow plants for flavor, nutrition, and a varied diet.

The goal of this project is to explore new crop options that can be grown hydroponically in a system similar to the one NASA uses to grow leafy greens in space. We plan to evaluate new crops based on their ease of production, availability of dwarf varieties, and taste. The primary goal is to find new crops that can be grown in a hydroponic system in space to provide diversity in astronauts’ diets. It is notable, though, that much of the information about the taste and nutrition of fresh vegetables and herbs is measured in plants grown either in the field or in greenhouses. We will grow novel edible crops that are currently not grown in hydroponic greenhouse production or on NASA missions. These crops will include: peas, dwarf kale, and carrots. We plan to assess the texture and color of the plants, as well as the quantity of sugars.

Jumping and landing in extreme conditions: From biological systems to bio-inspired robots
Collaborators from UMaine include Victor M. Ortega-Jimenez, assistant professor of integrative avian biology, and Evan K. Wujcik, assistant professor of chemical engineering.

Aerial control of jumping animals has shown that their unique adaptations and body morphing are fundamental for self-righting, as well as for a controlled landing. These skill sets are crucial for survival because they can reduce risks of physical damage during collision and rebound, as well as the response time against predators. In this regard, springtails, which have no wings, are exceptional because they have the ability, after an explosive jump, to recover from an upside-down orientation in less than 20 milliseconds. By adopting a U-shaped posture, these tiny animals control their mid-air posture via an aerodynamic torque. However, it is unknown what effects bad weather, such as turbulence and precipitation, have on the jumping and landing performance of animal jumpers. This research can inform the design of shape-morphing robots, made of flexible polymer-based materials, which could potentially be used for monitoring, sensing, and exploring the surface of other planets, where challenging environmental conditions may make flying systems unreliable. This aligns with the goals of NASA’s exploration program.

Decentralized and resource-efficient satellite swarm
Collaborators from UMaine include Prabuddha Chakraborty, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, Salimeh Yasaei-Sekeh, assistant professor of computer science, and Vikas Dhiman, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Small satellites, especially nanosatellites, are widely used by NASA to perform a variety of tasks including surveillance, weather monitoring, and asset tracking. Such systems are often centrally controlled (prone to single-point failures) and are forced to operate with limited communication bandwidth, power, storage space, and processing capabilities. Through this project, researchers aim to push innovations in the areas of consensus-based decentralized control systems, domain and application adaptive data compression, and efficient neural network representations for mitigating the mentioned challenges.

AI-Carb: An AI-based high-resolution carbon flux monitoring and simulation platform
Researchers from UMaine Yongjiang Zhang, assistant professor of applied plant physiology, Salimeh Yasaei-Sekeh, assistant professor of computer science, Xinyuan Wei, postdoctoral research associate in forest ecosystem modeling, and Daniel Hayes, the Barbara Wheatland associate professor of geospatial analysis and remote sensing, will collaborate with Peter Nelson, Schoodic Institute forest ecology director.

High-resolution carbon flux monitoring is crucial to understand mechanisms regulating ecosystem functioning and dynamics, and to predict their responses to future climate change. However, the tools currently used to monitor carbon flux in ecosystems have limitations that make it difficult to get a complete picture. In this study, researchers propose using a combination of different methods, including leaf measurements, thermal monitoring, machine learning, and hyperspectral imaging, to create a new artificial intelligence (AI) model for monitoring carbon flux at a high resolution. This model will be able to capture both the small-scale processes happening at the level of individual plants and the larger-scale movements of carbon in an ecosystem. It will also be able to simulate how plants and ecosystems might respond to climate change. By using this approach, the authors hope to create a more comprehensive and accurate tool for understanding carbon flux in different types of ecosystems.

Founded earlier this year, the University of Maine Space Initiative brings together faculty, administrators, staff, and students to advance Maine’s space-based economy and help meet the demand for a highly skilled workforce in space-related research, technology development, and commercialization. 

The mission of the initiative is to support research and development in space science and engineering through a multidisciplinary approach. This includes the direct participation of non-STEM researchers to provide a unique perspective, supporting the needs of a new and innovative space economy workforce.

If you are interested in participating in the MSGC Ideas Lab or for more information about the UMaine Space Initiative, contact Melinda Pelletier or Saul Allen at