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Recent grad's astro feats regarded as research crown 'joule'
by David Edwards for Air Force Academy Public Affairs
USAF Academy CO (AFNS) Aug 24, 2011

Second Lt. Michael Trubilla, seen here in his senior photo from the Air Force Academy, was named the Air Force Science and Technology Cadet Research Award winner for his work, which could vastly increase the efficiency of plutonium-based power sources for satellites. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Look out, Richard Dean Anderson. There's a new MacGyver in town. His name is 2nd Lt. Michael Trubilla, and a prestigious award is in the 2011 Air Force Academy grad's very near future: Trubilla is scheduled to receive the Air Force Science and Technology Cadet Research Award Aug. 25 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

Trubilla's mentors in the Astronautics Department have practically exhausted their supply of superlatives to describe his pioneering work in supplying power to satellites. In a recommendation letter, department head Col. Martin France said Trubilla "is truly the MacGyver of his class." And Dr. Ken Siegenthaler said the selection of Trubilla for the award was "a slam dunk."

"It's the best piece of research that I've ever seen a cadet do, and I've been here off and on for 20 years," Siegenthaler said. "This is master's-thesis-type stuff, perhaps even Ph.D. It's an enormous impact on the space program."

Trubilla's research covers so much ground that only a step-by-step breakdown can do it justice. It began during the summer before his senior year at the Center for Space Nuclear Research in Idaho.

Trubilla created a composite fuel system that contains both ceramic and metallic materials. The fuel system is compatible with high-power Stirling engines, which power small satellites.

"NASA has spent about $50 million on Stirling engines, and they've never flown them in space," said Bill Saylor, an astronautics instructor and Trubilla's main adviser. With Trubilla's research, "we're leveraging that huge NASA investment."

A double-barrel problem with the fuel system's power source was also solved by the research Trubilla conducted. The generator requires pure plutonium-238 to run, and the United States stopped production of it years ago. As a result, Russia became the U.S. supplier of pure plutonium-238. However, Russia canceled all sales agreements for the radioactive element.

The system engineered by Trubilla allows less pure forms of plutonium-238 to be used. American stocks of so-called "old" plutonium are abundant, so Trubilla eliminated a significant limitation on the space program.

Furthermore, Trubilla discovered a way to enclose the plutonium in such a way that it cannot be recovered by enemies with designs on using it to build a nuclear weapon. The innovative design also ensures that the fuel source will survive re-entry and not disperse radioactive material.

Saylor called Trubilla's accomplishments "a big mission-enabling breakthrough."

"Mike identified the key technical problems and solutions to overcome them," Saylor said. "He didn't know enough to know what he couldn't do. So he said, 'Let's try it this way.'"

The repercussions of the research are staggering, Siegenthaler said. Efficiency gains in electricity generation are stretched tenfold. Besides drawing significantly more power out of existing sources, Trubilla's design also reduces the system's mass and volume.

"Mass is everything in the space business," Siegenthaler said.

Savings for the Air Force as a result of Trubilla's work are estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. NASA's offer of $500,000 in Stirling engine equipment is intended to develop the concept further.

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