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EMA senior design lab spring 2024
March 5, 2024

A look at aerospace engineering in senior design

Written By: Caitlin Scott



When the Engineering Mechanics (and Aerospace Engineering, EMA) program moved into the Mechanical Engineering Department in 2023, everyone was excited about the new opportunities for students across both programs. While both the ME and EMA undergraduate programs give students exciting hands-on opportunities, the two programs are not identical. One distinguishing feature of EMA is the focus on mechanics applied to aerospace engineering. This is especially notable in the EMA senior design courses.

EMA senior design lab spring 2024
EMA senior design lab spring 2024

EMA senior design spans two semesters. Semester 1 students in EMA 469 work on a smaller project from the idea phase through building a prototype. When EMA 569 launches in semester 2, students lean into aerospace and come up with an aircraft or spacecraft design in just 15 weeks. This project really showcases all the upper-level EMA courses they’ve taken.

Sonny Nimityongskul
Sonny Nimityongskul

Course instructor Dr. Sonny Nimityongskul shares:

“Designing an airplane or satellite in just 15 weeks with four undergraduate students may seem daunting, even impossible. Our senior design class takes a different approach; it’s not an exhaustive aircraft or spacecraft design course. Instead, we leverage the breadth of knowledge gained in classes such as aerodynamics, flight dynamics, orbital mechanics, rocket propulsion, satellite dynamics, etc. within a design framework. This allows students to apply their learning to a project of their choice, offering them the flexibility to focus on the aspects of design that resonate with their interests and passions. Our students take this as an opportunity to “geek out” on aerospace and showcase all the tools they’ve learned here at UW-Madison.”

Riccardo Bonazza
Riccardo Bonazza

Professor Riccardo Bonazza adds:

“Several senior-year classes are so rewarding for the students because they really are ‘capstones’ where all the material learned in previous, foundational courses finally comes together.  Besides senior design, the aerodynamics laboratory, flight dynamics, and satellite dynamics classes all combine and synthesize three and half years of preparatory work.  Students who take those classes are fully ready to enter the aerospace engineering workforce.”

Check out examples of two student projects from EMA 569.

Mars sample return ascent vehicle, May 2022

Student team: Sarah Schultz, Mehmet Sirtalan, Bryan Tanck, Travis Thyes, and Koby van Deelen

Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) design
Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) student design

The Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission involves sending a lander to Mars to retrieve samples collected by the Mars Perseverance Rover, launching the samples into Mars’ orbit, collecting them from Mars’ orbit, and returning them to Earth for further analysis. The focus of this senior design project is the design and manufacture of a smaller and more efficient Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) that can carry the samples from the surface of Mars into a specified orbit around Mars to be handed off. The MAV will be the first rocket ever launched from another planet and it must do so after making the initial trip all the way to Mars and enduring the harsh environmental conditions on-planet, without the option of maintenance or repairs.

The student team had to meet mass requirements and performance capabilities outlined by NASA, and came up with a final design split into the first stage structure, jet vane system, separation system, second stage structure, second stage propulsion system, electronics and control system, and payload system.

Their final MAV design demonstrates success in all relevant categories as prescribed by NASA through several standards, technical reports, and technical presentations. With a final mass of 396 kg without the payload, the most difficult design requirement was met. Additionally, the final MAV design will fit within the limited space required to use the existing Mars Entry Descent and Landing system (EDL). Thermal results demonstrate the capability for 9 months of storage on the Martian surface without the liquid propellant solidifying or damage occurring to the electronics. All relevant calculations and designs point towards a successful ascent vehicle leg of the overall sample return mission using the student team’s MAV design.

Rare Earth Metal Acquisition Satellite REMAS, May 2023

Student team: Avery Kendall, Ben Chapel, Clark Cantrall, Jacob Dedeo, and Violet Suhrer

The mining of rare Earth metals produces large amounts of toxic waste runoff (due to the toxic chemicals needed to mine and separate rare Earth minerals and isolate them). Furthermore, rare Earth metals are a finite resource that are in high demand; many electronics and new technologies are produced using rare Earth metals. However, these metals are being slowly depleted, and will eventually be completely consumed, which will inevitably complicate things for many current industries that use these metals.

Rare earth metals EMA 569 student project
Rare earth metals EMA 569 student project
EMA 569 student-designed satellite.

A possible solution is the mining of asteroids in the Asteroid Belt that contain substantial amounts of rare Earth metals. If the asteroids could be mined and the minerals successfully brought back to Earth, this could introduce a new avenue to acquire these metals and possibly help reduce the current mining on Earth. The goal of this project is to build a satellite that can perform an orbit transfer between Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and the asteroid 4460 Nereus, which resides in the Asteroid Belt and contains large amounts of Cobalt within its body. The satellite, upon reaching Nereus, would mine Cobalt using an apparatus, collect the mined Cobalt, and store it for use on Earth. This mission would take several years to reach Nereus, mine significant amounts of Cobalt, and then return to Earth. The student team’s calculations determined that the satellite could acquire 2500 kilograms of material from asteroid 4660 Nereus, within a mission timeframe of 4.99 years. Given all this data, REMAS could launch aboard a Falcon 9 launch vehicle on January 5th, 2055, with a wet mass of 11,000 kilograms, and will return on September 22nd, 2061, with a total mass of 3105.88 kg, of which 2500 kilograms is material mined from asteroid 4660 Nereus.

Read more about Aerospace Engineering at UW-Madison.

Featured image: EMA 569 students in spring 2024, photo provided by Sonny Nimityongskul