Marshall Physics Professors Receives Research Grant from NASA

Special to HNN Provided by Marshall University
Dr. Thomas Wilson (MU Photo)
Dr. Thomas Wilson (MU Photo)
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Marshall University physics professor Dr. Thomas Wilson has been awarded $478,709 to conduct research to help improve the propulsion systems NASA uses for deep-space missions.

The three-year award was one of 28 made nationally this summer through the NASA EPSCoR program. Wilson submitted the proposal through the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium. His project is titled “Coherent Terahertz Acoustic Phonons: A Novel Diagnostic for Erosion in Hall Thruster Discharge Chamber Walls.”

According to Wilson, NASA uses a special type of propulsion – electromagnetic (Hall) thrusters – for deep-space missions. These missions may last for many years as spacecraft move around the solar system; however, the wall structure of the thrusters is subject to erosion over time. The goal of his research is to better understand this erosion process and potentially improve the future design of these propulsion systems.

“The proposed work aims to significantly advance our fundamental knowledge base for these erosion processes and has the potential to lay the groundwork for intelligent selection and design of materials with improved erosion resistance that would increase thruster operational lifetime,” Wilson said.

He said the findings may eventually bring cost savings to NASA in thruster testing and design. 

Wilson’s collaborators include physicists and electrical engineers at NASA Glenn Research Center (GRC) in Cleveland; at the universities of Michigan, Rice and Stuttgart; and at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Marshall physics students also will collaborate on the project. The award provides research stipends for Marshall undergraduate physics majors. Hall thruster testing, research and development at GRC started in the 1990s, and Wilson hopes to take his undergraduate research assistants to the center to participate in the research project.

In addition, Wilson says his GRC collaboration should allow Marshall students pursuing master’s degrees in physical science to compete successfully for NASA Graduate Student Researchers Program fellowships, which are awarded for one year as training grants in the amount of $30,000.

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