ARLINGTON -- Laura Suarez Henderson intends to venture into space one day as an astronaut, and her dream journey will likely be easier because of her exacting work today.
Henderson, an aerospace engineering graduate student at the University of Texas at Arlington, has received a research fellowship from the National Science Foundation to continue her work locating space debris and figuring out how spacecraft can avoid it.
Henderson will receive a $30,000 annual stipend and up to $10,500 for college expenses for three years.
"We are keeping track of most objects, but recent crashes have created even more objects," she said, adding that many of the orbiting bits are tiny and extremely hard to detect. "It's almost like a very fine cloud of debris."
She is designing software than can measure a piece of debris and figure out what it is made of and how best to maneuver around it. Scientists will be better able to figure out how much fuel a vessel would need to navigate a debris field in space.
Though people think of something large falling through the atmosphere and hitting Earth, Henderson said the danger is really to working satellites and spacecraft in orbit.
"Objects that orbit the Earth are going very fast, and they're almost like bullets," Henderson said. "Something as small as a coin could perforate the wall of the International Space Station."
'My ultimate goal'
Henderson's work is mostly mathematics and physics: approximating the size of an object and what it is made of. From that, Henderson can predict the object's path and where it will be in a given number of orbits and length of time.
"The way it's spinning tells me whether it's a naturally occurring object," she said.
For instance, if she can see only one side of it that is constantly turned toward Earth, it's probably a communication satellite.
Research like hers is being done by the Air Force and by other scientists at a handful of labs nationwide.
"I write code that can extract information from the measurements of those objects," she said. "I look for location, speed and spin."
Henderson has been dreaming of becoming an astronaut since she was a girl growing up in her native Bogota, Colombia.
"That would be my ultimate goal, but things are so uncertain with NASA right now," she said. "I have not given up on that; it would be wonderful."
'A pretty big deal'
The award itself carries not only monetary rewards but also the prestige of the National Science Foundation, which can open doors for a young scientist.
"It is a pretty big deal in the scientific community," Henderson said.
She arrived at UTA in 2006 and finished baccalaureate study in 2010. Now she is following a four-year fast-track doctoral plan that skips a master's.
A graduate student who has her own funding for research has an automatic advantage, said Henderson's adviser, Kamesh Subbarao, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.
For instance, Henderson will get access to data at federal labs and government supercomputers to work on. She will have equipment and travel stipends to attend conferences and present papers and financial security for three years.
Henderson is also an Amelia Earhart Fellowship winner, an award started in 1938 for women who show a superior level of academic achievement and who are studying for a doctoral degree in an aerospace-related field.
Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657