Capstone 2019 Highlight: Iron Meteorite Imaging System

Meteorite sample from the Smithsonian Institution’s collection as they designed and prototyped IMIS.
The team was permitted to use this meteorite sample from the Smithsonian Institution’s collection as they designed and prototyped IMIS.

Capstone 2019 Highlight: Iron Meteorite Imaging System
Departments: Chemical and Life Science Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering
Team: Bazah Alhooli, Luis A. Beltran, Chris Davis-Smith, Jethrine H. Mugumya, Sean Newman,  Kyle Watson, Nathaniel J. Wygal
Advisers: Frank Gulla, M.S., P.E.; Gregory E. Triplett, Ph.D.; Bennett Ward, Ph.D.
Sponsors: Arizona State University, NASA, the Smithsonian Institution

A capstone design team from VCU’s departments of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering is supporting NASA’s efforts to better understand an asteroid that may yield new insights into Earth’s mysterious core.

The NASA Psyche Mission partners with universities across the U.S., including VCU’s College of Engineering, to provide projects for culminating project-based courses undertaken by university students in their final year of university across a range of disciplines.

Psyche, a metal asteroid orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter, appears to be the exposed iron-nickel core of an early planet. Deep within the terrestrial planets, including Earth, scientists infer the presence of metallic cores, but these lie out of reach, far below the planets’ rocky mantles and crusts. Data on iron meteorites may give researchers a better understanding of planetary cores and the history of planetary formation.

The VCU team is creating an Iron Meteorite Imaging System (IMIS) that can analyze iron meteorite samples and visually determine their bulk chemical compositions. It also has a database to store images and catalog color, texture and other details about each meteorite sample it images.

Meteorite experts use their knowledge to recognize the inclusions in meteorites based primarily on color, texture, and reflectivity. A major challenge of this project is to work toward translating this human knowledge to an automated recognition system that can replicate the human expertise.

As they develop the system, the VCU team is working closely with experts from the meteorite collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the Center for Meteorite Studies at Arizona State University.

The device is a two-foot cube portable photo studio for iron meteorite samples up to 10 inches in diameter and weighing up to 100 pounds. Its interior has adjustable LED lighting and a Nikon D810 camera that can be repositioned to accommodate reflective surfaces. Images pass through a computer imaging program that identifies and quantifies chemical inclusions. An exterior touch screen lets the user make adjustments as well as catalog images and data.

The IMIS will serve as the foundation for an automated recognition system to aid Psyche scientists as they prepare to compare the data they collect at Psyche with the iron meteorite samples we have here on Earth.


About NASA’s Psyche Mission

The Psyche Mission is part of NASA's Discovery Program. The Psyche spacecraft is planned to launch in August 2022 and travel to the asteroid using solar-electric (low thrust) propulsion. After flying by Mars in 2023 for a gravity assist, the spacecraft will arrive at Psyche in 2026 and spend 21 months orbiting the asteroid, mapping it, and studying its properties. The mission is led by Arizona State University. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is responsible for the mission’s overall management, system engineering, integration and test, and mission operations. Maxar Space Solutions, formerly Space Systems Loral, is providing a high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft chassis.