Ran Dai, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, is leading precision planetary landing research in efforts to send astronauts to Mars and benefit the space exploration mission. Credit: Courtesy of Ran Dai

An Ohio State professor has received a grant from NASA to help humankind travel farther than it ever has before.

Ran Dai, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, received a $600,000 grant to research and develop a spacecraft that could help put a human footprint on Mars.

Dai is one of 11 university faculty researchers in the United States to receive the Early Career Faculty for Space Technology Research Grant from NASA to investigate precision planetary landing.

“At this time, we have only transported a small robot up to Mars,” Dai said. “Now, our mission is we want to send several human beings to Mars.”

Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a statement that Early Career Faculty awards are one of NASA’s favorite ways to use “innovative minds in academia to help solve our high-priority technology challenges.”

Spacecrafts exit Earth and enter Mars’ atmosphere at very high speeds. Dai’s goal is to use aerodynamic forces upon the spacecraft’s descent to reduce the speed, while also using and carrying minimal fuel.

Dai said she wants to develop mathematical models and algorithms to help optimize fuel use.

Her project, “Optimized Entry and Powered Descent Guidance for Precision Planetary Landing,” will build on her previous experience of developing techniques to advance the understanding and applications of space vehicles.

“My objective is to build a good mathematical model that will precisely match the real operation of the spacecraft and also develop optimization techniques that will maneuver the spacecraft so that it will use minimal fuel to decelerate,” Dai said.

The grant will allow Dai to research powered descent, which is a planetary landing approach that uses reverse-direction rockets to ease the descent and stabilize the spacecraft by protecting it from horizontal winds. She will also be able to develop guidance methods for efficient fuel usage and precise landing to solve some of the challenges engineers face, such as flight trajectory control and fuel optimization.

Powered descent was first used by NASA when landing the Mars Research Laboratory rover on Mars in November 2011.

Dai said she will test these models and algorithms by using virtual simulations and experimental verification.

“Previously, we thought it’s not possible to transport a group of astronauts to Mars,” Dai said. “Now with these designs and planning, we can make it possible.”

Dai said she feels lucky to have received this grant because it provides her with the opportunity to help contribute to space exploration.

“With this grant, I can focus on real-world applications and use my research to solve some challenging problems that will benefit the space exploration mission,” Dai said.