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Whitworth physics students publish article on Mars missions in leading science journal

August 2, 2010

Kellen Oetgen

2010 alumnus Kellen Oetgen, senior Evan Staley, and junior Marc Rollins have published an article, "Effects of Variations in Plasma Propulsion System Performance on Mars Cargo Missions," in the March/April issue of Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets.

The students conducted their research alongside Kamesh Sankaran, associate professor of physics and chair of the physics department at Whitworth. According to the article's abstract, the article presents the results found in a study that set out to "analyze the effects of variations in a lithium Lorentz force accelerator propulsion system performance on a mission to Mars."

"Using a computer simulation we wrote, we were simulating cargo spacecraft missions to Mars," says Oetgen, of Bellingham, Wash. "The purpose was to see the effects of varying different engine parameters – mass flow rate, exhaust velocity, etc. – on the total mission time and the required fuel mass fraction. The engine parameters used for the trajectory calculations were chosen from experimentally demonstrated values of plasma thrusters."

Two years ago, Oetgen presented his initial results at the Murdock Undergraduate Research Conference. Last year, Rollins and Staley presented at the same conference with their additional findings.

Evan Staley

The students' results showed that each factor they measured would alter the flight in many ways. Ideally, the settings for each parameter depend on the most important factor for that particular mission, such as time of flight, efficiency, or fuel consumed.

Rollins, of Prosser, Wash., says the research experience gave him an opportunity to work in a challenging but friendly environment in which he was held to high standards but could still receive help if he needed it.

"I gained a lot of knowledge about the process of performing original research and having to solve problems as they arise," says Rollins. "I was also introduced to the intriguing field of plasma spacecraft propulsion."

For Staley, originally from Kennewick, Wash., the experience was a transition from seeing the work from a student's point of view to that of a researcher.

Marc Rollins

"Students generally succeed by learning the material presented to them and working well within its confines," says Staley, a double major in biophysics and Spanish. "Research is much more open-ended, and finding methods and data with which to solve problems is often far more difficult than solving the problem itself. Research involves a whole new mindset, and it was a great challenge discovering that and working with it."

Rollins and junior Ben Hamming are currently working with Sankaran on plasma propulsion, a project funded by Whitworth and the Washington NASA Space Grant. Oetgen will enroll in the University of Washington's Masters of Science in Engineering Program. Staley has landed an internship at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in Richland, Wash., to work on medical physics.

Located in Spokane, Wash., Whitworth is a private liberal arts university affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). The university, which has an enrollment of 2,700 students, offers 55 undergraduate and graduate degree programs.