Nav: Home

WPI mathematician is helping NASA spacecraft travel faster and farther

August 22, 2019

Worcester, Mass. - Aug. 22, 2019 - By combining cutting-edge machine learning with 19th-century mathematics, a Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) mathematician is working to make NASA spacecraft lighter and more damage tolerant by developing methods to detect imperfections in carbon nanomaterials used to make composite rocket fuel tanks and other spacecraft structures.

Randy Paffenroth, associate professor of mathematical sciences, computer science, and data science, has a multi-part mission in this research project. Using machine learning, neural networks, and an old mathematical equation, he has developed an algorithm that will significantly enhance the resolution of density scanning systems that are used to detect flaws in carbon nanotube materials. Higher resolution scans provide more accurate images (nine times "super resolution") of the material's uniformity, detecting imperfections in Miralon® materials--a strong, lightweight, flexible nanomaterial produced by Nanocomp Technologies, Inc.

Miralon® yarns, which can be as thin as a human hair, can be wrapped around structures like rocket fuel tanks, giving them the strength to withstand high pressures. Imperfections and variations in thickness can cause weak spots in the yarn and the resulting composite. Paffenroth, with a team of graduate students, is analyzing data from the manufacturing process to help ensure a more consistent end product.

Nanocomp uses a modified commercial "basis weight" scanning system that scans the nanomaterial for mass uniformity and imperfections, creating a visual image of density; Paffenroth and his team are using machine learning to train algorithms to increase the resolution of the images, allowing the machine to detect more minute variations in the material. They have developed a unique mathematical "compressed sensing / super resolution" algorithm that has increased the resolution by nine times.

Built with the Python programming language and based on an artificial neural network, the algorithm was "trained" on thousands of sets of nanomaterial images in which Paffenroth had already identified and located flaws. He essentially gave the algorithm a series of practice tests where he already knew the answers (known as "ground truth"). Then, he gave it other tests without the answers. "I give it a sheet of material. I know the imperfections going in but the algorithm doesn't. If it finds those imperfections, I can trust its accuracy," said Paffenroth.

To make the machine learning algorithm more effective at making a high-resolution image out of a low-resolution image, he combined it with the Fourier Transform, a mathematical tool devised in the early 1800s that can be used to break down an image into its individual components.

"We take this fancy, cutting-edge neural network and add in 250-year-old mathematics and that helps the neural network work better," said Paffenroth. "The Fourier Transform makes creating a high-resolution image a much easier problem by breaking down the data that makes up the image. Think of the Fourier Transform as a set of eyeglasses for the neural network. It makes blurry things clear to the algorithm. We're taking computer vision and virtually putting glasses on it.

"It's exciting to use this combination of modern machine learning and classic math for this kind of work," he added.

Paffenroth's work is funded by an $87,353 grant WPI received from Nanocomp Technologies, a New Hampshire-based subsidiary of Huntsman Corporation that makes advanced carbon-nanotube materials for aerospace, defense, and the automotive industry. WPI is a sub-contractor to Nanocomp, which received an $8.1 million contract from NASA to advance its carbon nanotube sheets and yarns.

Miralon® has already been proven in space. For instance, it was wrapped around structural supports in NASA's Juno probe orbiting the planet Jupiter to help a challenging problem with vibration damping and static discharge. NASA has also used Miralon® nanomaterials to make and test prototypes of new carbon composite pressure vessels, the precursors to next generation rocket fuel tanks. NASA spacecraft will need that added strength and durability as they travel farther from home and deeper into space.

As part of its current NASA contract, Nanocomp is trying to make Miralon® yarns that are three times stronger, and the work by Paffenroth's team is a big part of making that happen.

"Randy is helping us achieve this goal of tripling our strength by improving the tools in our toolbox so that we can make stronger, better, next-generation materials to be used in space applications," said Bob Casoni, Quality Manager at Nanocomp. "If NASA needs to build a new rocket system strong enough to get to Mars and back, it has a big set of challenges to face. Better materials are needed to allow NASA to design rockets that can go farther, faster and survive longer."

Casoni noted that with the higher resolution from WPI's algorithm, Nanocomp can see patterns and variations in its materials that they couldn't see before.

"We can not only pick up features, but we also have a better idea of the magnitude of those features," he said. "Before, it was like seeing a blurry satellite image. You might think you're seeing the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, but with better resolution you see it's really Mount Washington or the Colorado Rockies. It's pretty amazing stuff."

And with better measurement tools, Nanocomp also will be able to improve its manufacturing process by testing whether changes in factors like temperature, tension control, pressure, and flow rates create better materials. "We can use better measurements to optimize our ultimate product performance," said Casoni. "Randy is helping us understand our manufacturing process better. He's doing his "magic math" to help us better understand variations in our product. The uniformity of that material plays a big part in its ultimate strength."

Paffenroth and his team will also develop algorithms to be used in active feedback control systems to predict how good a particular piece of material will be as it's first being made, helping to ensure a more consistent end product. The algorithm analyzes the properties measured at the beginning of the manufacturing run to effectively predict the properties at the end of the run, including mechanical properties and length of run.

"We can use machine learning to predict that Nanocomp won't get a useful length of material out of a particular production run," said Paffenroth. "It helps them with waste. If they can tell in the first few meters of the run that there will be a problem, they can stop and start over. The Holy Grail of process engineering is that the more you understand about your process, the better your process is."

WPI will present its findings on Aug. 25 at the 2019 International Conference on Image, Video Processing and Artificial Intelligence in Shanghai, China.
-end-
  • To read more about WPI's related work with NASA, click here.
About Worcester Polytechnic Institute

WPI, a global leader in project-based learning, is a distinctive, top-tier technological university founded in 1865 on the principle that students learn most effectively by applying the theory learned in the classroom to the practice of solving real-world problems. Recognized by the National Academy of Engineering with the 2016 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education, WPI's pioneering project-based curriculum engages undergraduates in solving important scientific, technological, and societal problems throughout their education and at more than 60 project centers around the world. WPI offers more than 50 bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degree programs across 14 academic departments in science, engineering, technology, business, the social sciences, and the humanities and arts. Its faculty and students pursue groundbreaking research to meet ongoing challenges in health and biotechnology; robotics and the internet of things; advanced materials and manufacturing; cyber, data, and security systems; learning science; and more. http://www.wpi.edu

Contact:

Andrew Baron, Associate Director of Public Relations
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Worcester, Massachusetts
508-831-5916, ajbaron@wpi.edu

Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Related Science Articles:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.
Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.
Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.
Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.
Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.
World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.
PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.
Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.
Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.
Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.
More Science News and Science Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Risk
Why do we revere risk-takers, even when their actions terrify us? Why are some better at taking risks than others? This hour, TED speakers explore the alluring, dangerous, and calculated sides of risk. Guests include professional rock climber Alex Honnold, economist Mariana Mazzucato, psychology researcher Kashfia Rahman, structural engineer and bridge designer Ian Firth, and risk intelligence expert Dylan Evans.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#541 Wayfinding
These days when we want to know where we are or how to get where we want to go, most of us will pull out a smart phone with a built-in GPS and map app. Some of us old timers might still use an old school paper map from time to time. But we didn't always used to lean so heavily on maps and technology, and in some remote places of the world some people still navigate and wayfind their way without the aid of these tools... and in some cases do better without them. This week, host Rachelle Saunders...
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dolly Parton's America: Neon Moss
Today on Radiolab, we're bringing you the fourth episode of Jad's special series, Dolly Parton's America. In this episode, Jad goes back up the mountain to visit Dolly's actual Tennessee mountain home, where she tells stories about her first trips out of the holler. Back on the mountaintop, standing under the rain by the Little Pigeon River, the trip triggers memories of Jad's first visit to his father's childhood home, and opens the gateway to dizzying stories of music and migration. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.