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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

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Shideh Naderi. Photo courtesy of NASA Shideh Naderi. Photo courtesy of NASA

Space Magnets: SDSU Alumna Designs Technology for Future Moon Missions

Shideh Naderi leads a NASA team developing cryogenic fluid management technology for missions to the moon and Mars.
By Susanne Clara Bard

When humans return to the moon, astronauts could be using technology developed by a NASA team led by San Diego State University alumna Shideh Naderi (‘16).

In 2020, Naderi and her colleagues received $2.5 million through NASA’s Early Career Initiative to design and test a magnetic coupler for transferring cryogenic fluids such as fuels that can withstand harsh, dusty conditions on the moon and other planets. Naderi is principal investigator on the project and an electrical engineer at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center near Lancaster, California. 


The work was prompted by an annual NASA list of technological gaps holding back space missions. “We looked at that and identified a few of those gaps, and we thought of a solution for them,” she said. One such need: better cryogenic couplers in space. 

At very low temperatures, hydrogen, oxygen and methane change from gases to liquids. In a liquid state, they can be used to generate large amounts of power for space missions. But transferring these fuels requires a cryogenic coupler between the fuel source and its destination. Existing couplers, which rely on mechanical components to stay closed, may not cut it.

“A traditional coupler has a lot of nooks and crannies,” said Naderi. That’s a problem on the moon, because the copious amounts of dust on the lunar surface could easily get into those small spaces. “Lunar dust is abrasive, it's very dangerous to humans; it's destructive to equipment.”

Instead of the usual mechanical components, Naderi’s team proposed using specially designed magnets to connect the two sides of a coupler. The simple surface of a magnet, they reasoned, lacks complex parts that can fill with dust.

Naderi’s team collaborated with a commercial partner in Alabama, Correlated Magnetics Research, to develop programmed magnets for use in the couplers. Unlike typical magnets with a simple north and south pole, these patterned magnets behave differently depending on the position and angle of rotation. 

“You can program them to do what you want them to do,” said Naderi. For example, they can be built so that at five degrees of rotation, they attract, but if turned to 15 degrees, they start to repel. 

Mechanical couplers require users to carefully align the two sides when connecting them. But when preprogrammed pattern magnets are integrated into the couplers, they self-align at a certain distance, requiring less input from the user.

“For example, if an astronaut is trying to connect one side of a coupler to another, instead of them trying to make sure it goes in perfectly, these magnets will do that,” said Naderi. 

She added that if needed, the magnetic couplers could even be designed to operate autonomously, without a human user. 

Naderi’s team and their industry partner tested the magnets under extreme temperatures at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Back at Armstrong, they tested to make sure the magnets provide enough force to operate the coupler.

But Naderi said more work will be required before the magnetic couplers are ready to be deployed, and she hopes to secure more funding for further development and testing. NASA’s upcoming Artemis mission plans to return humans to the moon as soon as 2025. The couplers could also be useful on missions to Mars. 

Serving as principal investigator on her own project was a learning experience for the young engineer.

“My job duties are project management and chief engineering,” she said. “Normally you have different people that do this. This project gave me the opportunity to learn to do all of this on the job.”

Naderi moved to the United States from Iran by herself when she was 18. She attended community college and then transferred to SDSU, where she graduated in 2016 with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering and computer science. Since then, she’s also earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from UCLA. 

She credits SDSU for inspiring her to become serious about her studies, and for giving her the opportunities that led her to where she is today.  

“I don’t think without SDSU, I would've gotten into NASA,” she said. “Wonderful opportunities were just there for you to grab if you wanted to.” 

At SDSU, Naderi was very active in engineering clubs, and as a junior, she applied for NASA’s Pathways Internship, a program that allows students to explore careers at the space agency firsthand. Her experience as an intern opened the door to work as an engineer at NASA Armstrong. 

“I think all of this is thanks to SDSU.”