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Ipswich High Grad Conducting NASA Research

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UMass Lowell student Colin Senechal works in a university laboratory inspecting plastic pellets that are used to fabricate lightweight structures for space exploration. Senechal, a plastics engineering major from Ipswich, gained the chance to work on the project through the university’s Co-op Scholar Program.

Wicked Local Ipswich
08/27/2015
By Dan Mac Alpine

IPSWICH - Three seasons of running track and cross-country. Music. Throw in advance placement calculus.

It all adds up to Colin Senechal, Ipswich High School Class of 2014, working on a NASA grant for UMass Lowell Prof. Christopher Hansen.

The $579,00 grant will finance Hansen’s efforts to develop a building block that astronauts could use to construct — right in space — an entire space station or auxiliary elements like a telescope arm or solar-panel supports.

The blocks could even be used to build a base on Mars or on an asteroid.

Right now Hansen and his research team are developing a 6-inch beam that will interlock with other beams and create that basic space building block. Think a kid’s building system. Legos. Kinects. Or even Tinker Toys.

“Basically the goal of the project is to have some kind of repeatable structure,” said Senechal of Shagbrook Woods. “One shape or a few simple shapes that you can put together on a large scale.”

Senechal got his opportunity to work on the NASA project as an undergraduate, only between his freshman and sophomore seasons, because UMass Lowell selected him to participate in its co-op scholars research program.

The university selects early-decision students — those students who apply early to the university — for its Co-op Scholars Program based on an incoming student’s grades and SAT scores. The students must conduct their research either between their freshman and sophomore years or in their sophomore years. They must also maintain a minimum 3.0 grade point average during their time in the program. Students receive a $4,000 scholarship in return for their research work. Professors may also rehire students for their research after the scholarship ends.

“It’s a huge opportunity,” Senechal said. “It’s incredible as a freshman that I can really even think about doing something like this. It’s a lot of hands-on work that you’d never get in a classroom.”

Senechal, as part of Hansen’ research team, is currently working on a lightweight, carbon-fiber beam system. The research now focuses on what Senechal calls the “sushi-roll technique.”

The system uses a carbon-fiber and boron-fiber sheet impregnated with epoxy. Plastic filaments are placed on the sheet and then the whole thing gets rolled up into a cylinder shape, creating the beam. The cylinder is then heated and the plastic “melts out” as the cylinder heats and the epoxy-impregnated-sheet adheres and dries into a firm cylinder. The “melted out” plastic leaves behind voids that run through the entire beam leaving space for the locking pieces.
The carbon fiber handles tension well, but not compression. The boron handles compression force very well. The boron is slightly heavier and more expensive than the carbon. So, the team uses both to create the beams and the exact balance will depend on exactly what task a beam is to perform.

Either way, boron and carbon are both stronger and lighter than steel or aluminum.

The Hansen team is now experimenting with a 3-D printer to produce the plastic filaments. The printer can create the filaments in any size or dimension needed.

“Eventually, the rolling would be done by machine, but now we’re doing it by hand,” said Senechal. “This isn’t coming out tomorrow. But, it’s not really far away. It’s in the near future I’d like to say.”

The final product must be strong, light and reusable. Every gram matters in space travel because of the expense in just getting material into space. The lighter the material, the more can be packed into each payload.

If the beams can be reused once in space, that means fewer launches to get the building materials to a space station — it can cost $10,000 per launch just to get the building material into space.

“If you can harvest even half of the materials already in orbit and reuse them to form a new structure, that would be very helpful in terms of time, energy and cost,” Hansen said.

Senechal believes a broad-based high school education prepared him for the co-op research opportunity.

Running, which he still does for fun in college, gave him discipline — “I’m not good enough to run in college,” Senechal said with a laugh.

“Music always has been a big thing,” he said. “And it still is.” Senechal plays both the saxophone and guitar. “I play music with my friends all the time.” He just played a gig at the Middle East in Cambridge with Steve and the Believers, a ska and funk band and Senechal just finished another gig with a jazz band for a fundraiser at First Church.

To Senechal, the work on the NASA project doesn’t seem so far away from his other interests. It’s just another opportunity to be creative and to apply that creativity to something tangible.

“You learn how to apply what you get from calculus 2 or 3,” said Senechal. “Let’s create something physical, which I prefer to sitting in a classroom all day. I can say, ‘Yes, I’ve used an extruder screw (a machine that produces the plastic filaments). For a freshman in college, that’s pretty ridiculous.”