Laying the foundation: First-year students build prototype magnetic shields for space travel

// Biomedical Engineering, Engineering Physics

Photo of students in InterEngr 170 class

In fall 2020, first-year College of Engineering students tackled a project of out-of-this-world proportions: how to design a magnetic shield system to protect astronauts on long interplanetary journeys.

Their clients—Paolo Desiati and Elena D’Onghia with UW-Madison’s astronomy department—have high praises for the students’ work, which may lay the groundwork for future technological breakthroughs. D’Onghia is an associate professor of astronomy, and Desiati is a senior astrophysicist who works with the Ice Cube Neutrino Observatory.

Magnetic shielding systems could provide protection for future astronauts from the radiation hazards of prolonged space travel. These systems might work in the same way the Earth’s magnetosphere—a bubble of magnetized plasma surrounding the planet and created by its magnetic field—protects us by deflecting harmful radiation carried in the solar wind.

The idea isn’t a new one. Researchers have for decades looked to magnetic shielding systems as a solution for long-range space travel, but they come with challenges—including their weight and how to power them.

As technology improves, space agencies around the world continue to explore how it can help them create systems that could protect astronauts on long journeys. Desiati and D’Onghia hope to collaborate with NASA on one such project. That brought them to the InterEngr 170 freshman design course led and organized by Dr. Tracy Puccinelli, which provides students the opportunity to work on multidisciplinary teams on real-world projects.

The two learned about the course from colleagues who worked on past projects with the course.

“This class has an outstanding reputation,” D’Onghia says. “The idea of working on a project that NASA is making; it’s not a normal project that a client would give to first-year students. It’s engaging for us to be able to work with students who are so young—yet doing work that is so valuable that they’re contributing to something that is a worldwide challenge and of great interest to this country.”

During the course of the class, Desiati met weekly with the students—and John Murphy, a faculty associate in engineering physics and one of the instructors for the course—to walk them through the physics of space radiation and space travel. Though it could be intimidating for first-year students to have to decipher some of the complicated and arcane concepts of physics, Desiati said InterEngr 170’s students rose to the challenge.

“I really introduced everything to them,” Desiati says. “I told them about the magnetic fields and how they work, and how to calculate forces and some of the units we use. I had the impression that they were really following me. Even if they didn’t understand the tiny details of every single thing, the big picture was there enough for them to do some incredible work.”

Students broke into four teams to plan prototype magnetic shielding system designs and develop presentations to explain their work. They 3D-printed scaled-down models of their systems, and Desiati and D’Onghia say future teams may build upon those designs for further development and, ultimately, full-scale testing.

Nicole Parmenter, a first-year biomedical engineering student in the class, says the project seemed daunting at first. However, she and her fellow students took things one step at a time—with help from Desiati, D’Onghia, Murphy and student assistant Courtney Lynch—as they conceptualized and built their prototypes.

“First, we really focused on brainstorming,” Parmenter says. “We had lab brainstorming sessions that we could attend in-person, and we’d write on boards and throw out all sorts of ideas. Our group came up with three designs and used a design matrix to pick which was the best one. From there we made a prototype to show Paolo in our final presentation.”

The four teams created designs based on two different concepts. With the students’ design work completed, Desiati and D’Onghia now may implement their ideas into future designs. They also plan to keep the students informed as the project moves along.

Desiati says the experience was as much a learning experience for D’Onghia and him as it was for the students. “We might arrive at the class with our own concepts in mind, but if we give students a spark and the chance to work, they might come up with some idea that we’ve never even thought of before,” Desiati says. “And indeed, they did. Each of the teams brought a different perspective on how to work on this problem. We gave them a skeleton and they asked questions to fill it out. I even took notes from their questions.”

He says it’s evident that the college attracts extremely talented students who will go on to do great work. Though the COVID-19 pandemic prevented him and D’Onghia from meeting in-person with the students, he says the quality of their work was evident.

“I can see from the results in what they put together that they work very well together,” Desiati says. “I work with teams and I sometimes see professionals who don’t work as well as these students have. Interdisciplinary work is fundamental for scientific advancement. Each field has its own language. The challenge is finding the right way to interface these languages to feed into each other, and these students did that beautifully.”

A fifth-year senior who took InterEngr 170 in 2016, Lynch says it helped solidify her choice in engineering and was such a positive experience that she was happy to return to help teach it a few years later.

“Being a freshman and designing projects with real-world clients is unheard of at other schools, as far as I’m aware,” Lynch says. “When I took the class, it set the course for me to pursue engineering and helped me decide that this was indeed the path I was meant to follow.”

And now as Parmenter embarks on her undergraduate journey through the College of Engineering, InterEngr 170 has helped to set her course as well.

“In high school, I’d take engineering classes, and we’d have a project that our teachers came up with for the class,” Parmenter says. “This is something actual engineers would work on, and it felt more real. This whole class made me really want to be an engineer because it was so eye-opening and such a good experience.”

Author: Alex Holloway