NASA takes professor to new heights


NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, which was tested for wear by Dr. Ibal Shareef, professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering, is coated with gold by Quantum Coating Inc.

When students in Dr. Iqbal Shareef’s Strength of Materials course begin to complain about not having enough time to study, eat, or sleep, he tells them they are fortunate to have a 12-hour night and a 12-hour day. He explains, the International Space Station, some 220 miles from earth, has a day every 46 minutes and a night every 46 minutes.

“Can you imagine living in a world in which there are 92 minutes each day with only 46 minutes without sunlight?”  says Dr. Shareef, professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering.

But that’s not the only lesson Dr. Shareef brings back from two summer-long collaborations with NASA during which he helped the aeronautical agency solve tribological problems with the International Space Station and the James Webb Space Telescope.

As a faculty fellow with NASA, Dr. Shareef worked alongside other professors from universities such as Carnegie-Mellon, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, and Georgia Tech. During his first fellowship in 2010, Dr. Shareef helped NASA determine how long a lubricant could help sustain part of the space station.

Astronauts at the space station had noticed that a solar alpha rotary joint, which allows the solar panels on the space station to track the sun, had extensive damage and could not be easily repaired. One astronaut, Michael Freeman, applied some grease to the joint that significantly reduced vibrations and motor draw currents.

Because grease is seldom used in space, NASA wondered whether it represented a viable solution and how long it would solve the problem. Thanks to experiments conducted by Dr. Shareef and his colleagues in a simulated vacuum environment, NASA determined the grease needed to be applied every six months and would sustain the life of the joint by at least 10 years.

Dr. Iqbal Shareef met astronaut Michael Freeman after Dr. Shareef helped solve an International Space Station problem first observed by Freeman on a mission in space.

“When you really like what you do, it’s a great experience,” Dr. Shareef says. “It was so intense, but there was no pressure at all. The colleagues were all very supportive.”

 So impressed were NASA administrators that they asked Dr. Shareef to return to their Florida headquarters in the summer of 2011 to aid in experiments involving the James Webb Space Telescope. The telescope observes infrared light from faint and very distant objects and will complement the work done by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Because the Webb telescope is not yet in space, NASA officials wanted Dr. Shareef to determine any problems that could arise after launch and during orbit.

“When there’s a problem, you focus 100 percent on solving the problem,” he says. “When there’s no problem, you have to imagine what could go wrong.”

During experiments, Dr. Shareef noticed that debris was found near a micro-shutter, hindering the optics of the telescope. After several experiments, Dr. Shareef determined that the wear was caused by adhesion between the ceramic roller bearings and misalignment of the rollers. He corrected the misalignment angle and anodized the rollers to correct the problem, ensuring that the telescope could operate without problems while in space.

Dr. Shareef returned to Bradley full of enthusiasm and also full of ideas. He and four of his students, two under-graduates and two graduates, are currently collaborating with NASA’s scientists to solve bearing problems with a spiral orbital tribometer, which allows for ball bearing lubricants to be tested. Dr. Shareef and his students also are working on a design feature that allows items to work in a vacuum.

“My students get a very different perspective in my class,” he says. “We have a lot of things going on.”