Physics Lecture Series | Spring 2018

UHCL Physics and Space Science Seminar Series

UHCL's distinguished Physics Lecture Series takes place every year during the spring semester and includes presentations by world-renowned scientists who speak on a variety of physics and space science topics. These talks are free and open to the public. They are are appropriate for anyone, from high school students to practicing scientists, as they expose a general audience to ongoing research in physics and space science. All talks take place Monday evenings at 7 p.m. in SSCB 1100.

Each session takes place in conjunction with the Research Project and Seminar (PHYS 6838) and the Modern Physics Research Seminar (PHYS 4732). To register, visit our online registration (under Professional Development, click the "Physics Seminar Series" link). For assistance, call the Center for Educational Programs at 281-283-3530.

University credit is available for the series in two ways. Non-physics majors can receive class credit by signing up for PHYS 4732. Students can earn continuing education certificates as well through this series. The cost is $15 per individual seminar, $40 for any three seminars, or $99 for the entire series. If you are not pursuing a credit, you are still welcome to attend at no charge.

Science ... So What?


Jancy McPhee, Executive Director, SciArt Exchange

McPhee Abstract

Truly learning and contributing to physics, or any science and engineering, requires more than just mastering the facts. Scientists must know how to understand and communicate the value of what they are doing to other professionals, funders and the public. During this era of increasing automation and more advanced scientific and technical challenges, we also need people of all backgrounds creatively collaborating to solve problems. Integrating-science-with-art can help us be better communicators, innovators and team members. Dr. McPhee will show engaging examples of effective "SciArt" and discuss how each of us can be better prepared for, and contributors to, future space, science and technology.

McPhee Bio

Jancy McPhee is a neuroscientist and former manager of domestic and international space life sciences research programs. Since 2010, she has worked to find motivating and novel ways to enhance space education, foster science and technology innovation, and promote global collaboration to solve hard challenges. She created the international Humans in Space Art Program to encourage people of all ages, cultures and backgrounds to communicate their visions of the future of human space exploration and development through visual, literary, musical, and video art. So far, the Program has engaged 1000's of artists, and 100,000's have viewed multi-media artwork displays and performances online, locally worldwide, and in space. Through her nonprofit, SciArt Exchange, she offers global science-integrated-with-art activities and training to inspire and prepare the world for the future of humans in space. She also provides consulting for corporations and educational organizations.

Measuring the Universe with Exploding Stars


Peter Brown, Research Scientist at Texas A&M University/Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics & Astronomy

Brown Abstract

Type Ia supernovae are one kind of "standard candle" used to measure distances and the expansion rate of the universe. With the hundreds or thousands of supernovae used in current analyses, the systematic errors now dominate over the statistical errors. Many of these systematics are poorly understood but are expected to have strong signatures at ultraviolet wavelengths. I am using the Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Explorer and Hubble Space Telescope to observe supernovae in the ultraviolet. I will show constraints on progenitor systems and extinction derived from Swift ultraviolet observations. I will also discuss the effects expected from metallicity, asymmetry, and explosion differences, and how ultraviolet observations can improve the use of type Ia supernovae as cosmological probes.

Brown Bio

Peter Brown is (sort of) originally from Friendswood, Texas, and his first real job was selling SpaceDots at Space Center Houston. He received his bachelors degree in Physics and Astronomy from Brigham Young University and his PhD from the Pennsylvania State University where he first began studying gamma ray bursts and supernovae with the Swift satellite. He is currently a Research Scientist at Texas A&M where he leads a multi-disciplinary AggieNova team of undergraduates.

A Partially Re-Usable Horizontal Take-off and Landing Launch Vehicle - A Continuing Case Study


Wes Kelly, Consultant Engineer, Triton Systems, LLC

Kelly Abstract

Historically, reusable and expendable launch systems have experienced rising and falling tides, but also variations in approach. Among reusable concepts, first stages combining aircraft features have been examined less often. This case includes horizontal take-off and landing with wings and air breathing engines; transitioning to rocket propulsion occurs at subsonic speed and stratospheric altitude. Stage recovery comes after separation of an expendable upper stage at rocket shutdown and subsequent coast to apogee and descent — heading off ultimately to a runway.

The locally based Stellar J project examines this approach, addressing integration, performance, preliminary design, missions and markets. Scalability of the concept is examined due to constraints of hardware and markets. Several applications prove promising with the most immediate the deployment of small satellite constellations. As design has matured, aero-thermal and structural studies have become more and more focused and hardware trades address the specifics of a design distinct in nature.

Kelly Bio

Wes Kelly and associates founded Triton Systems, LLC in 2004 to develop new aerospace systems and provide engineering analysis on civil or commercial space projects. Since the 1970s he has participated in design programs for spacecraft locally and across the country, sometimes examining astrophysical issues as well. He obtained his BS (AE) from U. of Michigan and MS (Aero & Astro) from the U. of Washington. He has written over 20 technical publications and frequently contributed articles on aerospace and astronomy for the local AIAA Horizons newsletter.

Venus' Radar-Reflective Highlands: Ferroelectric and Semiconductor Materials


Allan Treiman, Assoc. Director, LPI

Treiman Abstract

Venus' highlands appear much brighter than its lowland plains in reflected radar. Highlands near the equator show a pattern consistent with presence of a ferroelectric substance, with radar reflectance being: low at low altitudes (high T), increasing with altitude to very high values at ~4.5 km (700K), and then a precipitous drop to low values at higher elevations. These data are consistent with the presence of the mineral chlor-apatite.

The high-latitude highlands, Maxwell Montes, shows a different pattern; its surface transitions abruptly from low backscatter below ~ 4.5 km to high backscatter at at higher elevation, and remains so to nearly its highest elevations (~10 km). This pattern is consistent with the presence of a semiconductor material at high elevations, either precipitated from the atmosphere (e.g., a frost) or produced by atmosphere-surface interaction.

Treiman Bio

Dr. Allan Treiman studies planetary materials, particularly Moon rocks and martian meteorites. From these rocks, he teases out the early histories of the terrestrial planets (including large asteroids), emphasizing their volatiles — water, halogens, carbon, etc. His background is in chemistry, and he approaches planetary sciences from both geological and thermochemical perspectives.

Folding on Lapetus


Jonathan Kay, Post-Doctoral Researcher, LPI

Kay Abstract

Previous models that attempted to explain the formation of the pronounced oblate shape of Iapetus suggested that it was a preserved rotational bulge. These models found that heating was provided by short-lived radioactive isotopes that decayed rapidly and allowed the excess flattening of the lithosphere to be locked in by a thickening lithosphere, but placed severe timing constraints on the formation of Iapetus and its bulge. Here, we show that finite element simulations with an elastic-viscous-plastic rheology indicate it is possible to form the bulge through long-wavelength folding of the lithosphere of Iapetus during an epoch of contraction combined with a latitudinal surface temperature gradient.

In contrast to models of a frozen rotational bulge, heat generated by long-lived radioactive isotopes warms the interior, which causes porosity loss and forces Iapetus to compact by ~10%. Our simulations are most successful when there is a 30 K temperature difference between the pole and the equator. Tectonic growth of the bulge is not sensitive to the time scale over which the moon contracts, and lithospheric thickness primarily controls whether a fold can form, not fold wavelength. In addition, long term simulations show that when no stress is applied, the mechanical lithosphere is strong enough to support the bulge, with negligible relaxation over billion year time scales.

Kay Bio

Dr. Jonathan Kay is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Lunar and Planetary Institute. His research interests are primarily about studying how planetary bodies' surfaces and structure change, such as analyzing and modeling icy moons of the outer solar system.

Biologic Modifiers of Radioresponse


Heath Skinner, Assistant Professor of Radiation Oncology, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

Skinner Abstract

The twin goals for the therapeutic use of radiation to treat cancer are to increase tumor cytotoxicity while decreasing damage to normal tissues. To accomplish these goals, the precision of photon-based radiotherapy delivery has been improved via advanced technologies such as intensity modulated radiotherapy (IMRT) and volumetric arc therapy (VMAT). Coupled to daily imaging of the area to be treated with high resolution x-ray or low-resolution cone beam CT, significant conformality of high dose to target can be achieved. Further technological developments include the development of precision therapies using robotic mounting of a mobile source as well as and high degrees of immobilization . Finally, the use of photon-based therapy is being questioned in favor of heavy ion radiotherapy.

The most developed of these being proton-based radiation, although other heavy ion therapies, such as carbon and helium are being developed. While technologic advances in the therapeutic delivery of radiotherapy have been dramatic over the past several decades, biologic modulators of radioresponse are comparatively underdeveloped. There is currently only 1 FDA-approved biologic agent to improve tumor response to radiation. Similarly, there is only 1 radioprotector in clinical use. Improved understanding of radioresponse is both key to improving the therapeutic use of radiation to treat malignancy as well as to potentially mitigate damage due to long term occupational exposure.

In this presentation, I will give a brief overview of the utilization of therapeutic radiotherapy followed by a discussion of the current development of novel biologic radiomodulators.

Multiphysics Modeling of Hydrocarbon Leaks on the Gulf of Mexico Floor


Steve Fitzgerald, Multi-physics Modeling and Simulation Lead

Fitzgerald Abstract

Intuitive Machines (IM) has been engaged in developing subsea hydrocarbon release simulation capabilities in support to our customer since late February of last year. IM has been actively modeling capping operations for subsea and terrestrial blowouts since 2013 and has developed unique industry capabilities for modeling hydrocarbon releases into the environment. IM was specifically tasked with the utilization of plume modeling numerical tools to aid in identifying candidate sources for the continuing surface sheens observed by observational aircraft overflight. Intuitive Machines successfully executed the task and achieved the following key achievements: incorporation of the highest resolution met-ocean model for the Northern Gulf of Mexico into our modeling tools, full ADCP field record incorporation for rapid assessments of sheen surfacing, development and application of volumetrically consistent particle release simulations capable of reproducing field observed sheen dynamics, and production of sheen animations that illustrate the physical origin of previously misunderstood observations. Overall the toolset achieved 96% match against observational data from 51 piloted overflights. Application of the improved modeling framework was able to show that all aerial observations across 4 years could be attributed to a single source location on the seafloor.

Design of an Automated Re-entry Vehicle for Priority Sample Returns


Tim Crain, Vice President of Research and Development, Intuitive Machines

Crain Abstract

An innovative design for a low-cost, commercial cargo return vehicle from the International Space Station (ISS) has been developed at Intuitive Machines for bringing small priority payloads back to Earth separate from the large return vehicle traffic model. The Universal Return Vehicle (URV) design consists of a modified NASA elliptical heat-shield originally developed for large payload entry at Mars and combines this design heritage with modern subsystem designs, advanced guidance and control, and automotive grade parts selected for space applications in a risk-managed approach. The discussion will include a presentation of the concept of operations for the URV design and concepts for applications beyond ISS payload return.

Crain Bio

Timothy Crain, is an aerospace engineer working as Vice President of Research and Development at Intuitive Machines. He graduated with a doctorate from TAMU in 2000 after earning a master's degree in 1999 and bachelor's degree with highest honors in 1995, all three in aerospace engineering. After graduation Crain joined the advanced mission design branch of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston working on plans for human exploration of Mars. At NASA, Crain has developed the design of navigation systems for both human and robotic spacecraft involved in entry, descent, landing and rendezvous, proximity operations, and docking. These designs were used for the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory, the mini-AERCam free-flying inspection vehicle, the Hubble robotic servicing vehicle, and provided the foundation for the Orion crew exploration vehicle. He is developed his career working toward humanity's return to the moon as the Orion orbit guidance, navigation, and control system manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

Fusing Physics and Video Game Technology to Build Galaxy Pairs as Star Formation Benchmarks in the Local Universe


Shaun Stewart, Senior Development Engineer, Intuitive Machines

Stewart Abstract

Modeling and simulation of physical systems is an integral part of the design for extreme environments where empirical testing is not always practical. For complex systems where a single failure can result in the end of the project, catastrophic environmental damage, and/or potential loss of human life, for these types of applications accurate and efficient modeling and simulation are essential in enabling development of robust designs. Intuitive Machines implemented a solution of this nature for modeling the real-time operation a horizontal drilling rig. In practice, the operation of the drilling rig requires a team of 10-12 individuals working in concert and a novice drill operator must observe the operation for up to two years on the job before they can lay hands on the controls.

In this presentation, I will give a brief overview of a specific tool developed enabling drillers to practice precision horizontal drilling in a virtual simulated environment. The approach integrates hardware-in-the-loop human control interfaces with real time models for simulating the physics of drilling and jetting through varied geology. Open-source graphics tools are used to provide an immersive realistic, real-time experience sufficient for industrial certification training and driller performance evaluation in a virtual environment.

Stewart Bio

Shaun Stewart is a Senior Development Engineer at Intuitive Machines in Houston. He received his bachelors and masters degrees in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin in 2004. For approximately 10 years, he worked at NASA modeling spacecraft navigation systems, testing and developing navigation flight software in simulated flight environments for manned spaceflight. Since joining Intuitive Machines in 2014, he has enjoyed applying skills and techniques for physics modeling and simulation used at NASA to problems pertinent the oil and gas industry on Earth.

The Weather on the Moon and the Mystery of the Swirls


Georgiana Kramer, Staff Scientist, LPI

Kramer Abstract

Lacking an atmosphere to erode the surface with wind and water, the Moon's surface ages through chemical and physical interactions with meteoroids and the solar wind, collectively termed "space weathering." Over time, these interactions chemically and physically alter the surface, through crushing, mixing, annealing, and sputtering, ultimately causing the material to homogenize and darken. The lunar swirls, however, break these rules. In addition to their sinuous shapes, lunar swirls are optically bright, spectrally immature, and associated with magnetic anomalies (the Moon has no global magnetic field). There are two competing hypotheses to explain the lunar swirls:

  1. They are formed by recent comet impacts.
  2. The magnetic anomalies shield the surface from weathering by the solar wind.

Using orbital spectroscopic data from Clementine, Kaguya, and Chandrayaan-1, Dr. Georgiana Kramer demonstrated that: 1) despite having spectral characteristics of being immature, the lunar swirls are not freshly exposed surfaces, 2) swirl surfaces are regions of retarded weathering while regions adjacent to swirls experience accelerated weathering, and 3) maps of OH abundance show the lunar swirls are depleted in OH relative to their surroundings. These conclusions support the hypothesis that the magnetic anomalies redirect solar wind ions, thereby slowing the process that darkens the lunar soil.

Studying lunar swirls is more than just studying a lunar phenomenon: the swirls provide a laboratory to study the solar wind, space weathering, and complex electromagnetic interactions in the Solar System.

Kramer Bio

Dr. Kramer studies the composition, structure, and evolution of the Moon, asteroids, and other planetary bodies using data from spacecraft missions. She was a member of the Science Team for the Moon Mineralogy Mapper, which was the first instrument to unambiguously detect water on the Moon.

Spacecraft Charging: Hazard Causes, Hazard Effects, Hazard Controls


Steven Koontz, ISS System Manager for Space Environments

Koontz Abstract

Spacecraft charging analysis and migration is an interdisciplinary subject combining aspects of electrostatics, plasma physics, ionizing radiation, and materials science, as well as electronic system electromagnetic interference and compatibility (EMI/EMC) effects.

Spacecraft charging hazards are caused by the accumulation of electrical charge on spacecraft and spacecraft components produced by interactions with space plasmas, energetic charged particles, and solar UV photons as well as spacecraft electrical power and propulsion systems operations. Spacecraft charging hazard effects include both hard and soft avionics and electrical power system anomalies and have led to the partial or complete loss of numerous spacecraft. The International Space Station (ISS) orbital altitude and inclination (~400 km and 51.6 degrees) determines the dominant natural environment factors affecting ISS spacecraft charging; high speed flight through the geomagnetic field and electrical power system interaction with the cold, high-density ionospheric plasma. In addition ISS is exposed to energetic auroral electrons at high latitude.

In this paper ISS charging measurements with numerical modeling of ISS charging processes are compared. ISS is a large metallic structure and flight through the geomagnetic field at orbital speed dominates ISS charging. Collection of ionospheric electrons by the large 160V PV arrays is the next largest contributor. Charging by auroral electrons is detectable but makes a relatively minor contributions. Finally we report the observation of short duration (~ 1 sec) rapid charging peaks associated with shunt/un-shunt operations of the 160V PV arrays, a phenomena not predicted before flight. ISS spacecraft charging environments are radically different from those encountered at higher altitudes in Earth's magnetosphere and in cis-Lunar space. A brief review of those charging environments and an assessment of the applicability of ISS spacecraft charging management and experience to future human spaceflight programs beyond LEO is presented.

Koontz Bio


Ph.D., Analytical Chemistry (physical/instrumentation) University of Arizona 1983
B.S., Chemistry (physical/nuclear), College of Chemistry, Univ. of Calif. Berkeley, 1972

ISS System Manager for Space Environments, 2000 to present - areas of responsibility and research interests:

  • Spacecraft-Environment Interactions: Space Plasma, Ionizing Radiation, External Contamination, thruster plume impingement effects, neutral atmosphere, Solar UV/VUV effects
  • Space Radiation effects on spacecraft avionics systems (the single event effect (SEE) and total ionizing dose (TID) environments
  • Applying the FLUKA and other radiation transport codes to SEE/TID analysis and prediction of in-flight spacecraft avionics systems SEE rates and TID rates
  • Spacecraft Charging Effects and Mitigation

Honors and Awards

  • NASA Exceptional Service Medal — May 10, 2007
  • Astronaut's Personal Achievement Award, "Silver Snoopy," Sept. 11, 2007
  • Rotary Stellar Award Nominee — 2007 and 2008
  • NASA JSC Center Director's Commendation Award — July 28, 2011
  • NASA Silver Achievement Medal — December 9, 2014

From Academia to Industry: A Career in Data Science


Kito S. Holiday, Ph.D., Technical Manager, Management Science Associates (MSA), Inc.

Holiday Abstract

While the hard sciences offer excellent preparation for a career in industry, one often finds that private-sector human resources departments can perceive a mismatch between a broad and rigorous hard science education and skill-specific job requirements. Though this mismatch is false, it is nevertheless an obstacle prospective job hunters must navigate. In this talk, I will share my experiences and offer advice for transitioning from academia to industry. Specifically, I will talk about my career in the television advertising industry.

ISS Utilization and the Commercialization of Space as a Resource


Heath Mills, Ph.D., Director of Science, STaARS, Inc.

Mills Abstract

Historically, there has always been a catalyst or external trigger than has driven exploration, expansion and the establishment of commercial colonial activity. This catalyst has been primarily economic in nature and generally attracts clusters of high risk entrepreneurship and relatively innovative technological advances. Presently there is a boom occurring in the commercial space industry. This boom is primarily driven by the access being granted by federal governments and advances in technology. This talk provides a framework for understanding the conditions that are necessary to give rise to a commercial self-sustaining high-skill micro-gravity industry. The framework identifies four requirements that commercial industry must have in order to establish, sustain and grow a micro-gravity commercial market.

Mills Bio

Heath Mills Phd. is the Director of Science and a founding member of Space Technology and Advanced Research Systems (STaARS) Inc. Heath, oversees the STaARS strategic science plan of the Houston based aerospace company and is responsible for new business development, life-science R&D and product commercialization. STaARS is presently conducting micro-gravity research on the International Space Station with investigations from over ten U.S. states and over seven countries. STaARS goal is the development and commercialization of space products for terrestrial medical use.

Student Presentations