Funded NASA EPSCoR Research Projects

Currently Funded NASA EPSCoR Research Projects

FY 2022

“Metastable Oxygen Nanobubbles to Advanced Life Support Systems in Space Exploration”. Dr. Onur Apul, Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Maine

Nanobubbles (NB) are ultrafine gas domains in liquids with nano-scale diameters that are typically smaller than 1,000 nm. They have remarkably large interfacial surface areas and unique physicochemical properties owing to their small dimensions. Recent studies have shown that they can be suspended in water for hours up to months and produce reactive oxygen species (ROS) without added catalysts. Despite these interesting observations, applications of NBs in life support systems for space exploration have not been widely explored. We believe NBs have the potential to become a key component of next generation biphasic fluids to address the essential water and oxygen supply needs of space transport, survival, and colonization. In addition, this technology has breakthrough
potential for engineered terrestrial systems such as conventional water and wastewater treatment, horticulture, aquaculture, and algae cultivation. The proposed project aligns with the Space Mission Technology Directorate research areas, particularly supporting the Maine Space Complex. The objectives of the following research tasks were co- developed with Dr. John Graf technology development lead for life support systems at NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC), who linked our research activities to the priorities of his division and to Dr. Emily Matula, extravehicular activity flight controller and an expert of algae cultivation in space at NASA JSC and to Dr. Chris Matty, international space station (ISS) program integrator and expertise in crew life support in ISS at NASA JSC.

This transformative and novel research will explore the fundamental characteristics of NBs with pragmatic viewpoints to advance human spaceflight life support systems. The first phase of the project will focus on fundamental aspects of NBs including generation, stability, mass transport, interfacial interactions, and reactivity. The second phase will demonstrate their application potential for algae growth for sustainable O2 harvesting in space. The completion of this project is also going to lead new research opportunities at subsequent technology maturation stages such as testing NB application feasibility at ISS. This proposed project is designed to build research capacity for production, characterization, and application of NBs at University of Maine (UM) and University of Southern Maine (USM). The project will stimulate competitive research in Maine and help junior faculty and their graduate/undergraduate students become national leaders in this emerging field. Our team will develop Maine’s first liquid reaction platform in the form of CubeSats and participate in UM’s High-Altitude Ballooning Program and collaborate with blueShift Aerospace Inc., a Maine-based aerospace company, to perform two rocket launches as technology demonstration.

The multi-institution collaboration is led by Dr. Onur Apul, an early-career faculty member at UM, who is establishing a research program in the nano-enabled water treatment field with co-investigator Dr. Ali Abedi, Associate Vice President for Research. Other collaborators include Dr. Garcia-Segura, an early-career, Hispanic faculty member at Arizona State University and Dr. Ashanthi Maxworth, an early-stage faculty member and her expertise is CubeSat flight control at USM. Investigators are active collaborators in Maine Space Grant Seed Project and co- authored several publications and currently developing a decadal survey with NASA researchers. The investigators are engaged with diverse teams of graduate and undergraduate students, including underrepresented groups in engineering, such as women and members of minority groups. At least 50% of all researchers will be selected from underrepresented groups to increase the diversity of the researcher cohort in corresponding institutions. Additionally, student training and equipment acquisition in Maine will be the two essential outcomes (50% of the total direct cost) of the proposed project.


FY 2019

“Multi-scale remote sensing approaches for forest health assessment”. Parinaz Rahimzadeh Bajgiran, Assistant Professor of Remote Sensing of Natural Resources, School of Forest Resources, University of Maine

Almost one-third of U.S. economic and cultural well-being strongly depends on a healthy forest land-base and its sustainable management. The Northeastern U.S. is the most heavily forested part of the country, with Maine being the most forested state at 89%. The forests of this region provide numerous products and services for rural livelihood, wildlife, and the environment. Sound, scientifically-based management of this resource requires a significant investment in forest inventory and health monitoring. Recent advances in remote sensing (RS) technology are revolutionizing the way in which forests are measured and monitored. The focus of this research is on providing more detailed, finer resolution, accurate, and near-real time data on i) forest tree species identification and ii) forest tree decline detection and damage assessment using optical air- and space-borne hyperspectral and multi-spectral data. The goal is to address immediate information needs for precise pest/pathogen control for current outbreaks in Northeastern forests, as well as for early intervention and host tree protection. This information is also needed for pest risk prediction, estimation of economic impacts of outbreaks, quantifying wood supply losses, identifying changes in wildlife habitat, and as inputs for landscape-scale forest succession and disturbance simulation models.

Since 2000, a large body of RS sensors and platforms has become available to overcome shortcomings related to the unavailability of optical RS imagery and their cost. These sensors can produce enhanced geospatial data products to meet research and decision support needs. Despite these considerable advances, RS methods to adequately apply these data by combining several sensors and platforms are not yet developed in particular for forestry applications. Additionally, high-resolution maps of forest species composition are not yet available, mainly attributed to limited RS data availability in the past, challenges related to the detection of pest induced damages compared to other forest disturbances, and high cost of satellite RS data at a very fine resolution. Consequently, the long-term goal of this project is to develop sound approaches for providing detailed geospatial products on forest tree identification and composition, forest defoliation/damage caused by recent destructive pest/pathogen outbreaks such as spruce budworm (SBW), emerald ash borer (EAB), Caliciopsis canker, and eastern white pine decline and mortality using RS data. The realization of this goal will provide i) better models compared to the traditional aerial survey methods to detect and quantify pest-induced defoliation/damage, ii) potential tools to address shortcomings of current satellite derived forest disturbance products and algorithms, and iii) detailed information on tree species distribution, tree decline indicators and their drivers of change. This proposal addresses this knowledge gap by leveraging various NASA RS technologies including Landsat and in particular, recent NASA Goddard’s Hyperspectral-LiDAR-Thermal system (G-LiHT) data. Rather than a single use technology, the continually updated products offered here will both support a strong and sustainable research program at the University of Maine (UM) as well as provide stakeholders with enhanced forest health information needed for decision making. While the immediate application of these models and products will be for Maine, the developed models can be applicable for the entire northeastern U.S. and Canada and in other regions with similar problems including western U.S. Finally, research, educational and synergistic activities conducted in this project will foster a collaborative network of junior and senior faculty across various disciplines, as well as post-doctoral researchers, graduate/undergraduate students working with NASA scientists and researchers and other institutes within and outside Maine.”


Previously Funded NASA EPSCoR Research Projects

FY 2016

“Multi- and hyperspectral bio-optical identification and tracking of Gulf of Maine water masses and harmful algal bloom habitat”.  Dr. Andrew Thomas, School of Maine Sciences, University of Maine.

Each summer, extensive areas of Maine coastline are closed to shellfish harvesting due to Alexandrium, a toxic dinoflagellate, costing millions of dollars in lost commercial revenue and monitoring efforts. Unlike the harmful algal blooms of other coastal waters, Alexandrium is dangerous even as just a minor part of the phytoplankton community, at concentrations too low to be detectable with current remote sensing technology. However, extensive previous research has shown that these organisms are widespread, have strong spatial and temporal patchiness, are associated with specific temperature and nutrient regimes, and are transported by local physical processes. The waters of the Gulf of Maine, especially those close to shore, are optically complex due to varying amounts, sources
and characteristics of colored dissolved matter, suspended sediment, and varying concentrations and diversity of phytoplankton. A systematic investigation of the capability of multispectral satellite data to isolate and monitor the oceanic habitat of Alexandrium has not been carried out. In this proposal, we use NASA multispectral and SST data and new hyperspectral field data to bio-optically classify different Gulf of Maine surface water masses, identify those water masses that are preferred Alexandrium habitat, track these water masses and map their interaction with, and impact on, coastal shellfish harvesting sites. We bring a multi-institution and multi- disciplinary team to address this problem.
The global ocean color community is poised to transition to the next generation of space-borne ocean color data from hyperspectral optical sensors. NASA’s focus in this effort is the PACE mission, expected to launch in the next 5-6 years. Maine’s ocean scientists and environmental resource managers need to transition to this level of data complexity to remain competitive and fully reap the benefits of these data for Maine applications and priorities. This proposal builds both instrument and intellectual infrastructure with hyperspectral data, while addressing a Maine technology priority and interfacing with a critical marine resource sector.

Our overarching goal is to use NASA’s satellite-based measurements of coastal ocean bio-optical and hydrographic characteristics to define, isolate and track those water masses most closely associated with Alexandrium and coastal shellfish toxicity. The research involves a combined retrospective and real-time analysis of existing field observations and multispectral satellite data and 3 years of new fieldwork that leverages an existing, separately funded project, and introduces a project-purchased hyperspectral instrument. This instrument will be deployed on a ship and will emulate PACE, allowing unprecedented spectral resolution of Gulf of Maine surface waters to better discriminate optical water types. Both efforts are supported by numerical modeling of circulation to view interannual and spatial variability in flow trajectories and the forcing that drives these, and GIS modeling to map and model the interaction between these parcels and DMR sampling sites, coastal shellfish beds and both state and municipal stakeholders.

The project leverages existing infrastructure, data sets and research projects in Maine and Canada, and builds upon an existing strong partnership with the ocean biogeochemistry program at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. The proposal transitions a group of established ocean scientists to a new technology necessary for future NASA ocean color research. The proposal includes a young scientist who has not had prior NASA funding, a Post Doc and two graduate students whose research will straddle satellite data analysis directly applicable to NASA and coastal applications directly applicable to Maine resource management. Lastly, we build in undergraduate research opportunities for 12 students at two Maine campuses using satellite data and GIS as STEM teaching tools.


FY 2014

“Earth System Data Solutions for Detecting and Adapting to Climate Change in the Gulf of Maine.” Andrew Pershing, Chief Science Officer, Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

A core element of NASA’s mission is to help the nation meet the challenges of climate change. A key step in advancing this goal is the application of NASA’s high-quality Earth system data to inform decision making for climate change adaptation.Because of the accelerated rate of change documented in marine systems, climate change and climate variability pose a direct challenge to the management and sustainability of marine natural resources. Our project will create high-resolution dynamic models of the distribution of commercially and ecologically important marine species based on Earth system data. These products will provide a foundation for hindcasts, real-time estimates, and seasonal forecasts to support climate adaptation in fisheries throughout New England, including specific forecasts for Maine’s $1B lobster industry. Our project will also establish a team of ecologists, ecosystem modelers, and data scientists focused on ecological forecasting and will develop strong ties to NASA scientists and NASA data products.

Animal distributions change in space and time in response to conditions in their environment. A central goal of our project is to develop models that can capture these changes in near real-time and take advantage of the wealth of animal observations collected outside of standardized scientific surveys. We plan to use the MaxEnt modeling framework to build models that use NASA data products to estimate the distribution of an important group of small pelagic fish and squid in the Gulf of Maine that serve as sentinels of a changing climate.We will then test algorithms to assimilate new observations into the models.These algorithms will improve the accuracy of the models and are especially important as our climate moves rapidly beyond historical conditions.We will also develop seasonal forecasts for conditions in the lobster fishery.These forecasts will provide valuable information for the industry and managers and will build a foundation for expanded forecasting work in the future.

Building models and delivering operational forecasts requires access to a wide variety of Earth system data products. We will work closely with our NASA partner, Edward Armstrong at JPL, to test the consolidated web services layer recently implemented by JPL to serve oceanographic data. Data access through these services will be implemented throughout the project, from the development and testing of models through to the operational forecasts.

Our project will advance ecological forecasting and deliver forecast information that will be critical for supporting climate change adaptation in natural resource management. The types of forecasts we will be developing will enable resource managers and industry participants to make proactive decisions as they strive to sustain businesses, industries, and economies in the context of climate change. Lessons learned from the immediate applications of this work to fisheries in the Gulf of Maine will have broad national relevance as resource-based industries increasingly confront the challenges of operating in changing and no-analog conditions. The infrastructure developed through this project—including information technology, the algorithmic framework, and scientific capacity of early career scientists—will provide a strong foundation for future work and will establish this team as regional and national leaders in marine ecological forecasting.

“Learning how to breathe: what can we learn about antiquity, iron oxidation, and respiration on oxygen from modern Fe-oxidizing bacteria.” David Emerson, Senior Research Scientist, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.  This project has three primary goals that are aimed at better understanding a group of microbes of interest to NASA from an exobiology standpoint, and developing single cell genomics techniques as a tool of use to NASA researchers working on extremophilic bacteria, as well as the larger scientific community. The work is of direct relevance to several goals laid out in the 2008 NASA Roadmap for Astrobiology. Dr. Emerson is developing the infrastructure for establishing a bioinformatics pipeline at the single cell genome center (SCGC) that has recently been established at Bigelow.


FY 2012

“Behavior and Optimization of Hypersonic Inflatable Atmospheric Decelerator Devices for Spacecraft Re-Entry.” William Davids, John C. Bridge Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Maine.  

This project seeks to advance our basic understanding of the load-deformation behavior of Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerators (HIADs). A HIAD is a nose-cone-mounted inflatable structure consisting of multiple, concentric nitrogen-filled tori that is designed to decelerate and protect spacecraft during atmospheric re-entry. Compared with conventional rigid aeroshell devices for human and robotic atmospheric re-entry, HIADs offer considerable mass and volume fraction reduction, a lower ballistic coefficient, and can be more readily deployed in thin atmospheres.


FY 2010

“Learning how to breathe: what can we learn about antiquity, biological iron oxidation, and respiration on oxygen from modern Fe-oxidizing bacteria.” David Emerson, Senior Research Scientist, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.

The aim of this project is to investigate modern Fe-oxidizing bacteria to determine if their evolution can be traced back to the origins of aerobic life on Earth. The logic for this is as follows. Modern Fe-oxidizing bacteria (FeOB) require low O2 (microaerophilic) concentrations to grow and utilize Fe(II) which is their only energy source. These bacteria live and are prolific in redox boundary habitats that have limited O2 and abundant Fe(II). The fact they are so well adapted to these habitats implies these environmental conditions are stable through time and likely ancient. Presumptive evidence for this comes from the knowledge that several FeOB produce unique microstructures, such as Fe-encrusted stalks, as a result of their metabolism on Fe. Fossilized microstructures that bear a striking resemblance to these have been identified in the ancient fossil record. The early Earth was anoxic, and its waters were Fe-rich. As oxygenic photosynthesis took hold, currently estimated at between 2.5 and 3 Ga ago, the atmosphere gradually became oxygenated. This created an ideal environment for the evolution of bacteria adapted to respire with low levels of O2 as an electron donor for the oxidation of Fe(II), and the ability to fix CO2. This leads to the central hypothesis of this work: FeOB represent one of the earliest groups of aerobic organisms on Earth.

The work proposed here is of direct relevance to three of the major goals laid out in the 2008 NASA Roadmap for Astrobiology (Des Marais, et al. 2008). In order of priority. Goal 5 aims to, ‘Understand the evolutionary mechanisms and environmental limits of life.’ Goal 7, recognition of biosignatures that can help to ‘ reveal and characterize past and present life in ancient samples from Earth, extraterrestrial samples measured in situ or returned to Earth’, and finally Goal 4, the integration of biosciences and geosciences to better understand how life adapted to environmental conditions through Earth history, and in turn may have influenced those conditions.

We have several isolates of both marine and freshwater FeOB in hand that have either recently had their genomes sequenced, or are in the process of being sequenced. The marine FeOB are especially interesting in that all the isolates (5 total) belong to a novel class of Proteobacteria, the Zetaproteobacteria. Molecular analysis has shown that Zetaproteobacteria predominate in marine habitats where there is evidence for FeOB, e.g. hydrothermal vents with large outputs of Fe(II) and Fe-oxide rich microbial mats, but they are not found in the surrounding seawater, or other deep or shallow ocean environments. From these same analyses, we know that our cultured representatives probably represent a minority of the Zetaproteobacteria that live in Fe-rich marine habitats. However, because they are monophyletic it should be possible to capture and identify their relatives by cell sorting and single cell genomics. We aim to carry out single cell analysis of hydrothermal vent samples, screen these for novel Zetaproteobacteria, screen the novel Zetaproteobacteria for a suite of genes that are relevant to their metabolism, and submit a subset of these for whole genome sequencing from single cells. Ultimately, this will give us a diverse suite of genes all coupled to microaerobic Fe metabolism that can be used for evolutionary comparisons. We will use bioinformatic approaches to determine evolutionary relatedness of genes. Coupled with this we will work with colleagues at NASA who are interested in probing Fe-based life for unique biomarkers that are indicative of their existence. One of their ultimate goals is to develop related instrumentation for NASA robotic spacecraft that could be used for the search for life on Mars.

The ability to couple genomic evolution with unique biomarkers and link these to the fossil record would provide an unprecedented opportunity to study microbial evolution in deep time on Earth and understand its potential to evolve extraterrestrially. If the central hypothesis is correct it will provide a paradigm for studying how aerobic respiration evolved. If results prove it incorrect, or are too ambiguous to interpret, we will still have learned a great deal about a fascinating, ubiquitous, but poorly understood group of microbes.”


FY 2008

“Real-Time Wireless Shape Monitoring of Deployable Space Structures.” Ali Abedi, Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Maine.

The research team focused on developing a real-time wireless shape monitoring system for inflatable space structures. New techniques for wireless distance and strain estimation and methods for modeling deployable structures were the main outcomes of this project. This project led to the establishment of UMaine’s Lunar Habitat, Wireless Sensing Laboratory (the first of its kind) to study inflatable space structures for extended manned missions on the moon and other planets. Recently, in January 2013, NASA Johnson Space Center and JACOBS Technology Company awarded another contract to UMaine to study usage of wireless sensors for monitoring International Space Station (ISS) Solar Arrays. This is an evidence of success in previous EPSCoR project and was not possible without EPSCoR support.


FY 2007

“Toxicity of Metals and Lunar Dust in Biological Systems.” John Wise, Applied Medical Sciences, University of Southern Maine.

The goal of the project was to develop a system for characterizing the potential cytotoxic, genotoxic and carcinogenic hazard of space dusts so that permissible exposure limits and engineering controls can be better determined to protect against them. To achieve this goal the USM researchers successfully tested the central hypothesis that lunar dust is toxic to human cells. As the result of this project, Dr. Wise has enhanced the research competitiveness of his laboratory and developed an ongoing partnership with NASA.