CHAFF gaffes: when things go wrong in research

gavin Research, Uncategorized 0 Comments

Last year I began working in USC’s Collaborative High Altitude Flow Facility during the second week of school. Designated as both a USC lab and a lab for Edwards Airforce Base, CHAFF tests propulsion systems for satellite applications, replicating the space environment in a large vacuum chamber. These past two years CHAFF has been working on a project designed to use the latent heat of molten boron to heat an inert gas propellant using only solar energy.

Despite the many cool things I’ve done so far, I’ve had to put my patience in check more often than I can count. As a naturally impatient person, I want to see results as quickly as possible, which is not always the most practical way of approaching research. We’re constantly redefining and redesigning what we do and test. After a little over a year, we’re already on our third iteration of the experimental design, and another iteration is not only likely, but nearly guaranteed.

In addition to the many delays due to changes in design, we’ve also had many delays due to “researcher-error”. While we try to keep the lab’s equipment in the best shape possible, there are always a few casualties. So far, we’ve gone through 15 sets of relays for our motors on a large heliostat. These relays control the timing of the motors as the heliostat tracks the sun and shines light into our concentrator and subsequently, our test section. Not only are the relays not cheap to replace, but by burning out 15 sets, we depleted our own supply, as well as the national stock (they’re limited in supply and in high demand). This process has resulted in an entirely new heliostat motor control system, and the design for that alone cost our research several weeks.

Overall though, I think research has definitely taught me a few lessons, especially with regards to patience. I’ve learned that research is not an overnight process, and never will be. It has its ups and downs, but in the end, hopefully something revolutionary is created. It is with this in mind that I continue to help search for a solution that will someday change the way satellite propulsion is defined, and will hopefully lead to many more discoveries by other scientists as well.


*The second iteration of our design. On the right is the left half of the heliostat. On the left is a large paraboloid collecting dish

Want to learn more? Here's the best place to ask: