Keeping Astronauts Safe While They Explore Other Worlds

By: Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala on

When Perla Latorre-Suarez ’21 was a child, she remembers holding her brother’s hand in the mountainous Orocovis region in Puerto Rico where she grew up and looking up on a clear night as the International Space Station flew overhead.

“That day, my parents explained to me its purpose and all the experiments and investigations conducted; this is where all my interest in space came from,” Latorre-Suarez says.

Her passion was further fueled by an eager schoolteacher who encouraged her to pursue science, a trip to Kennedy Space Center during a family vacation, and visits to the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which UCF manages for the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Today, the mechanical engineering alum is earning a master’s degree in aerospace engineering at UCF. Her current area of research is 3D printing sensors, made in space, that will monitor the structural integrity of the components and vehicles used by explorers on other planets.

“My biggest goal is to be able to collaborate on space missions, such as the Artemis moon mission,” she says. “I want to ensure astronauts’ safety while exploring other planetary surfaces.”

Latorre-Suarez, who was recently named a 2021 X-Force Fellow by the National Security Innovation Network and the Department of Defense and a NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium Fellow, chose UCF because of its excellent and supportive faculty, she says. As an outstanding student, she had plenty of options.

“UCF has amazing professors, such as Dr. (Seetha) Raghavan, that are always willing to help their students to achieve their goals,” she says. “UCF has given me the opportunity to grow as a professional and as a person. By having the opportunity to lead research projects, I am improving my skills in research, time management, teamwork, communication, and more.”

Latorre-Suarez credits Raghavan with her pursuit of space-related research at UCF. They connected after Latorre-Suarez transferred to UCF from Polk State College. The eager undergraduate was asked to help graduate students with their research on the structural integrity of aircraft. Together they pursued 3D printing and later determined they could probably use an autonomous application method for space missions. It works Latorre-Suarez continues today because she knows it will make a difference.

“Exploring space is important because we can get many answers that we will not be able to get here on Earth,” she says. “We can get answers about the history of our solar system and understand its formation. Through these answers, we will be able to expand technologies that will benefit us here on Earth as well as lend to further exploration.”

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