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UT Arlington graduate student earns National Science Foundation fellowship to study space debris

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

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Media Contact: Herb Booth, Office:817-272-7075, Cell:214-546-1082, hbooth@uta.edu

A University of Texas at Arlington aerospace engineering graduate student has received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to help determine where space debris is and how best to maneuver around it.

Laura Suarez Henderson will receive a $30,000 annual stipend and up to $10,500 for college expenses for the next three years.

Laura Suarez Henderson

“It was a complete surprise,” Henderson said. “I had to re-read the e-mail again and again. I even had my husband read it to make sure I was reading it right.”

Henderson is designing software that will determine a piece of debris’ size, what it’s made of and how to get around it. The information she is gathering also will help scientists calculate how much fuel or propulsion is needed to maneuver around the space trash.

“We’ve been accumulating things in space for 50 years,” Henderson said. “A couple of crashes have produced even more debris. We need to know where all that debris is located.”

Henderson said she receives debris location information from numerous radar installations dotted around the globe, then shares that accumulated information with those facilities.

Henderson said researchers use two angles – elevation and azimuth – to determine where the space debris is located. Azimuth is the position of the object in relation to true north. She said researchers also use light curve as a measurement of where the object is. Light curve is the amount of light the object reflects to the observer.

“The heavy lifting comes in building an algorithm to extract all of that information on velocity and how much the object is spinning because most things in space spin,” Henderson said. “Those numbers give us information that tells us with some certainty where the objects are and what they’re made of.”

Kamesh Subbarao, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in UT Arlington’s College of Engineering, is Henderson’s adviser.

“It’s terrific that Laura is receiving this well-earned recognition and funding,” Subbarao said. “In these tough economic times, it’s always a benefit when a graduate student can bring in their own funding for research. She also gets access to all data at all the federal labs and can work on government supercomputers. It’s quite a feather in the cap of the College of Engineering and the University.”

Henderson also is an Amelia Earhart Fellowship award winner. Established in 1938, that fellowship is awarded to women who have demonstrated superior academic achievement and who are pursuing doctoral degrees in an aerospace-related field.

Henderson said she’s interested in becoming an astronaut one day.

“I’ve always been extremely passionate about space,” said Henderson, who added her dream is still viable even though the shuttle program has been shelved. “That was my motivation in getting into aerospace engineering. The math calculations are tough but it’s very rewarding when you come up with the right answers.”

Henderson’s work is an example of the research taking place at The University of Texas at Arlington, a comprehensive research institution of 33,439 students in the heart of North Texas. Visit www.uta.edu to learn more.

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The University of Texas at Arlington is an Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action employer.