DU Infinity and Beyond NASA Challenge
DU Infinity and Beyond is a group of enthusiastic Duquesne University undergraduates from Biomedical Engineering and Physics who have accepted a challenge posted by NASA to create a device be used aboard the international space station (ISS) in microgravity. Our group chose the zip-tie challenge. The zip-tie challenge (shown here on page 8) involves the cutting of zip-ties in space.
However, there’s a problem. Before we can get our zip tie device to space, we need to get to Houston, Texas where we can compete in the Micro-g NExT competition to see how our device holds up under simulated space situations in NASA’s underwater testing facility. We have budgeted $5,000 for this trip as we are going to have most of our team in attendance (as well as the faculty mentor) so that we can troubleshoot any problems that might occur while we are there.
You might think, why does NASA need to cut zip-ties in space? Surely, they use something a little more expensive or specialized to attach things than those funny little plastic things people use to organize power cords here on earth. It turns out that zip-ties are one of the best (from a cost and physical perspective) methods of attaching materials inside and outside of the space shuttle in order to prevent unnecessary movement during launch and other activities. Unfortunately, the drawback to zip-ties is that they tend to be rather permanent and cannot be easily undone without cutting them. Therefore, once the astronauts arrive in space they are required to cut the zip-ties in order to use the instruments and materials they need to do all the fun “space stuff” they do up there.
Why doesn’t NASA just buy one of these and take it into space? (This is a “terrestrial zip tie cutter”) The answer to that is NASA cannot use one of the terrestrial zip-tie cutters because unlike here on Earth where gravity prevents objects from accelerating substantially anywhere but down, in space the story is more complex since there is very little gravity (microgravity) and so when a zip-tie is cut (the zip tie is under tension when it is applied) the tension is released all at once which can cause the zip tie to become a dangerous fast moving projectile that can damage equipment, space suits, and even hurt people in some cases. Therefore, NASA’s challenge requires that the zip tie device captures the zip-ties in order to prevent accidentally poking someone’s eye out or destroying a 150 billion dollar space station with a 10 cent piece of plastic and a series of very unfortunate events. Additionally, in order to protect astronauts outside in the vacuum of space, they must wear extremely thick environmental suits (space suits) and very thick gloves (similar to hockey gloves) that prevent their ability to use small, delicate tools that we commonly find here on Earth.
Therefore, the DU Infinity and Beyond team was created to potentially help NASA with this fundamental problem. We have designed a zip tie device that can be used in microgravity that should overcome the previous issues mentioned. Of course, NASA isn’t just going to take our word for it, they are going to test our device in their state of the art microgravity simulating pool that has an actual functional model of the space station submerged in it so that they can test devices such as our zip tie device before it is sent into space. If you’d like to learn more about this, check it out here.
Overall, the DU Infinity and Beyond team is very excited to go to Houston to test our state of the art space and water ready zip tie device for the competition. Check out last year’s competition and get an idea of what we’ll be doing here.