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Funded NASA Nebraska EPSCoR

Projects at the National Level

Dr. Craig Zulhke, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Femtosecond Laser Functionalized Surfaces for Cryogenic Fluid Management

To support space exploration, NASA relies on cryogenic propulsion systems and associated technologies, including those involved in storing, transferring, and controlling the pressure of cryogenic fluids. Collectively, these technologies are referred to as Cryogenic Fluid Management (CFM). University of Nebraska-Lincoln Professors Craig Zuhlke, George Gogos, Jeff Shield, and Siamak Nejati along with University of Nebraska-Kearney professors Scott Darveau and Christopher Exstrom are leading an interdisciplinary effort to develop femtosecond laser surface processing (FLSP) techniques to functionalize surfaces for use in CFM. Propellant management devices, specifically liquid acquisition devices (LADs), are critical to the function of fuel and storage tanks in microgravity. LADs are structures within the tanks that direct fluid to the output. In microgravity, surface tension is the most significant driver of fluid behavior, as opposed to the gravity field on a planet. Therefore, in microgravity, the wetting property of a surface—that is, the ability of a liquid to maintain contact with a solid surface—becomes an important factor in controlling the location and flow of fluids in fuel and storage tanks. LADs can be improved by altering the wetting properties of the LAD surfaces to attract fluids (supercryophilic) and by ensuring that surfaces in other parts of the tank repel fluids (cryophobic). The Center for Electro-optics and Functionalized Surfaces (CEFS), Co-Directed by Profs. Craig Zuhlke and George Gogos, has developed techniques to directly functionalize or tailor the surface properties of metals using FLSP. With FLSP, the properties of surfaces are altered by creating self-organized micro- and nano-scale surface structures combined with laser-induced chemistry changes using finely controlled ultra-short light-matter interactions. The goal of this project is to develop FLSP techniques to alter the wetting properties of fuel tank materials with respect to cryogenic propellant fluids that are stored in the tanks.

Dr. Jorge Zuniga, University of Nebraska at Omaha

Development and Testing of Recyclable Antimicrobial Materials for In-Space Manufacturing of Medical Devices

NASA has a variety of methods at their disposal to control and reduce microbial contamination for planetary and crew protection during long space exploration missions. Future long duration explorations missions to Mars will bring new challenges to the health and well-being of astronauts. Additive manufacturing has been proposed as a suitable technology for manufacturing medical devices in zero-gravity to fulfill the orthopedic needs of crew members with promising applications in onsite emergency care, such as manufacturing of finger orthoses and surgical instruments. NASA, in partnership with our industry partners Made In Space, Inc., launched the first 3D printing using Zero-G technology to explore the potential of fused deposition modeling additive manufacturing for in-space applications. The ability to manufacture medical devices in-space represents a fundamental shift in the current risk and logistics paradigm for human spaceflight. 3D printing in Zero-G technology represents the first steps on the path toward sustainable and earth-independent exploration initiatives. However, the reported immune dysfunction of astronauts in space and the potential virulence and viral antibiotic resistance during spaceflights limits dramatically the use of additive manufacturing technology, especially in the development of medical devices. Thus, there is a critical need for development of preventive countermeasures for the manufacturing of medical devices associated with bacterial development. The use of antimicrobial 3D printed materials has promising potential applications for manufacturing a wide range of medical devices associated to bacterial control, such as finger orthoses and surgical equipment. The purpose of the current proposal is to develop new antimicrobial 3D printing materials for the development of medical devices to serve as a preventive countermeasure to mitigate microbial risks during prolonged space flight missions.

Dr. Shane Farritor, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Miniature Robotic Surgery Technology Demonstration During Orbital Spaceflight

This investigation is a technology demonstration that will test robotic surgery while aboard a 2024 expedition of the International Space Station (ISS). The payload will utilize a new miniature surgical robot to complete simulated surgical tasks on orbit, both autonomously and while remotely controlled by an Earth-based user. The demonstration will study the effects of microgravity and latency on robotic surgery.

A miniature robot, endoscope camera, and surgical task board will be enclosed within an Express Rack Locker. The control system will include a network-connected computer, cooling, and power conditioning equipment. The control computer will also run an auxiliary camera to record a global view of experiment operations. Data will be saved on the control computer and the camera SD card for later recovery. 

Once installed on orbit, there will be three phases of operation: autonomous mode, remote teleoperation mode, and data transfer mode. First, the robot will execute a subset of surgical tasks autonomously. This ensures data will still be collected if a network connection to the payload cannot be established. Next, the robot will be remotely controlled from Earth in performing surgical tasks. Finally, after both phases of data collection are complete, data will be downlinked to Earth using the ISS network. 

There will be 4 separate simulated surgical tasks the robot shall complete. Each is representative of aspects of real surgical procedures. The simulations will be arranged across the robot’s entire workspace, so it will move through the full range of motion needed during surgeries. All experiments will be non-sterile. The surgical tasks will first be completed on Earth under normogravity using identical equipment, to provide a benchmark for comparison. 

Interventional surgery will become necessary as humans travel farther and longer in space and surgical robots are a possible solution. This technology demonstration will be an important step toward more advanced medical care for long-duration spaceflight.


Dr. Mukul Mukherjee, University of Nebraska at Omaha

MORS: Modular Robotic Suit as an Exercise System for Maintenance of Muscle Strength of Astronauts during Long-Term Space Missions

The Modular Robotic Suit (MORS) project is the development of a wearable modular suit that can be used as an exercise countermeasure for astronauts that are at risk of potential muscular atrophy. Towards this objective, multiple modular robot prototypes were built along with the software for controlling the robot based on different exercise routines and the user’s ability and comfort in doing the exercise. The project is an inter-disciplinary collaboration between researchers from the University of Nebraska in the areas of biomechanics and mechanical engineering, artificial intelligence at Texas A&M (Corpus Christie) and NASA scientists at the Johnson Space Center. A low-cost modular robotic system with with artificial intelligence-based machine learning algorithms for intelligent, real-time control of the robot, and exercise routines while using the robot were developed during the duration of the project. The long-term goal of the project is to provide a lightweight, low-cost device that can be attached to the body of crew members to provide supplementary lightweight routines for exercising different muscles groups in micro-gravity environments similar to those encountered in space. The device is also designed to interact with Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality devices to determine the effects of multisensory environments during walking and upper limb tasks. In addition, technological know-how gained from device development is useful for other devices such as exosuits for stroke survivors.

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Graham Kaufman, Sudha Krishna, and Syed Ibrahim Gnani Peer Mohamed standing in front of the femtosecond laser surface processing system used for modifying the wetting properties of surfaces with respect to cryogenic fluids.

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Manufacturing process of antimicrobial medical devices using a recyclable antimicrobial 3D printing filament.

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Surgical robot prototype.

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