Aerospace engineering student named NASA Space Technology Graduate Researcher

September 15, 2022

By Mariah Chuprinski

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Natalia Nigay, a doctoral student in Penn State’s Department of Aerospace Engineering, was selected as a NASA Space Technology Graduate Researcher.

NASA’s Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunities program sponsors U.S. citizen and permanent resident graduate students who “show significant potential to contribute to NASA’s goal of creating innovative new space technologies” for the United States’ “science, exploration and economic future,” according to the program overview. The award will be made in the form of a grant to Penn State on Nigay’s behalf, with Nigay’s adviser, Sven Bilén, professor of engineering design, electrical engineering and aerospace engineering, serving as principal investigator.

Starting this semester,  Nigay will use the four-year grant to study beamed microwave energy propulsion (BMEP), a type of energy that propels spacecraft using an external energy source, and its potential for use on the moon.

“Microwave energy sources have already been proposed for use on the moon, and BMEP has the potential to use water vapor or hydrogen as a propellant, which are both obtainable on the moon,” Nigay said. “We will first determine the frequency and power capabilities of microwave sources, as well as the viability of using hydrogen and water vapor as propellants. We also plan to develop a water vaporizer that can be installed and used onboard a flight vehicle. The ultimate goal is to test the thruster with the different propellants inside of a vacuum chamber and compare it to theoretical results.” 

In addition to working with Bilén, Nigay will collaborate with a “technically-relevant and community-engaged NASA subject matter expert,” according to NASA, who will serve as a conduit into the larger NASA community corresponding to Nigay’s research focus.

“As a recipient of a NASA fellowship during my own graduate studies, I know how important and transformational that support and engagement was to my own career development,” Bilén said. “I have no doubt that Natalia will experience the same through this fellowship and her stays at NASA centers.”

Nigay received bachelor’s degrees in 2019 in aerospace engineering and Russian at Penn State, as well as a master’s degree in aerospace engineering in 2021 at Penn State. Michael Micci, the late Penn State professor of aerospace engineering, served as Nigay’s graduate adviser prior to his death in 2020.


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