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Austin Peay student plays crucial role in NASA research

November 25, 2003

Austin Peay senior Ryan Hulguin had the opportunity to play a crucial role in furthering NASA research last summer.

Hulguin, a physics major, applied for the research program after encouragement from Dr. Jaime Taylor, chair of the department of physics and astronomy. Taylor learned of the program after Dr. Pei Xiong-Skiba, associate professor of physics and astronomy, was accepted to the NASA Faculty Fellowship Program and was notified that NASA had funds for accompanying students.

Hulguin was one of the few undergraduates accepted to the 10-week program in Huntsville, Ala. He earned $5,000 in wages, as well as an $800 relocation allowance.

The group's research goal was to find a process for producing lighter, stiffer x-ray mirrors to mount on hot air balloons. The mirrors are used to study violent phenomena in the universe, including colliding galaxies and fiery stellar explosions.

Hulguin says NASA hopes to launch a balloon with 240 x-ray mirrors to improve image resolution. The most they have used is six, so the increase in weight has been a concern.

His job was to research how other scientists have decreased the densities of materials. However, he also contributed to the research in an unexpected way.

“We needed something that would create a precise waveform, which affects how nickel is plated,” Hulguin says. “We did not have an electric waveform generator, but we had access to a computer equipped with Labview Software and appropriate hardware, so the computer could play the role of the waveform generator.”

Only one person involved in the research knew how to program in Labview: Hulguin.

“Luckily for me, I had taken a physics course taught by Dr. Spencer Buckner that familiarized me with the Labview software,” he says. “I was able to modify a simpler Labview program to handle more complicated input parameters and have it accurate on the order of milliseconds.”

As a result, the group developed a lightweight sample for NASA that did not show signs of a drastic decrease in its physical properties.

“The overall research experience was exciting,” Hulguin says. “It was especially exciting when we made a key discovery and watched our densities drop from 7.9 to 7.0 to 6.48 g/cm^3. After the research, I realized that, while I do not want to plate metal parts all day, I would love to apply my programming skills to help aid scientific research.”

NASA also required each of its summer participants to attend seminars, which Hulguin says were “spectacular.”

He says, “One scientist demonstrated how he developed a technology called Visar and used it to help NASA gain a better understanding of the Columbia incident. Another scientist showed how far we have come from airplanes to space shuttles and even described future-concept flying machines.

“My favorite presentation was given by Dr. Richard Hoover, who talked about his discovery of a new species that thrives in a Mars-like environment.”

Hulguin adds, “This was truly an opportunity of a lifetime.”
—Rebecca Mackey