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MSE: World-class team solves high-tech puzzles

September 6, 2003View for printing

It really is rocket science. Whether testing a nozzle in a high-pressure test facility, checking new technology that could save lives and machinery aboard aircraft carriers or identifying a friend or enemy in the middle of a war, engineers at Butte-based MSE are always working to solve high-tech puzzles.

By Leslie McCartney for inBusiness Montana Standard

“We have developed a world-class team,” noted Dave Micheletti, vice president and senior manager of the Advanced Energy and Aerospace Division at MSE Technology Applications Inc.

Out of research in magnetohydrodynamics -- conducted at MSE from the late ‘70s to early ‘90s -- has spawned new projects and new horizons at MSE. Just a little over a year ago, MSE landed a coup, when it was selected at the prime integrator for the Mariah II project, putting MSE’s team alongside such notable agencies as Lawrence Livermore Laboratories and Princeton University in working on a new generation of space research.

The Mariah II is intimidating to look at. A complex mass of green and silver beams, wires, oil, computer screens and a chamber to test nozzles are all part of the project that sits in one of MSE’s warehouses. There will be much testing in the coming months, testing nozzles of different materials to determine how they withstand high pressure. The groundwork is being done at MSE -- a full-scale wind tunnel is a few years away yet. But MSE is hoping to capture some of that work as the research and years progress.

“It’s a pretty major piece of work,” said David Lofftus, senior electrical engineer.

Twenty-five to 30 MSE employees have worked on the project so far and some of those include not only homegrown scientists and engineers but some from other countries, such as Dr. Ying-Ming Lee, who hails from Taiwan, and Bojana Nikolic-Tirkas from Serbia.

“We have developed a world-class team,” noted Micheletti. “We have some of the top scientists from around the world.”

From the dreams of helping develop a new generation of space launch vehicle and deep space transportation, researchers are drawn to MSE. “Because of the nature of our research, it draws high interest around the world,” Micheletti continued.

The company also prides itself on working alongside other prominent companies like Boeing, Pratt and Whitney, an aerospace engine manufacturer, and General Electric.

“It’s amazing that this little 200-person company in Butte Montana is partnering with some of the big players,” Micheletti said.

Along with the Mariah project, MSE is also excited about prospects for a computer program that is able to tell exactly if a hitch for aircraft is properly seated before it takes off from an aircraft carrier.

Usually that job is done by visual inspection. However, in a few instances, things can go wrong and either the unseated hitch causes the aircraft to wobble into the water, or worse, the visual inspector could be killed or hurt when something goes wrong during that inspection.

Using technology based on pattern recognition software, the computer can tell if the bar is seated properly.

“It is all an automated system,” said Jim McConnell, who along with partner Fred LaForest spent five days testing the software at sea. If things are awry, the software has the ability to shut down the aircraft if it or personnel is in danger.

The new program has shown progress and MSE engineers recently spent time aboard the USS Nimitz to test the program. “We are hoping the Navy adopts the new technology,” he said.

In another area of research, MSE has developed a device that can pick up radar from other military craft, such as a destroyer or tank, to determine if it is friendly or an enemy. Using this device can limit the number of deaths due to mistakes in the field.

“Though the Mariah is our flagship project we are involved in a number of other things of a very advanced nature,” Micheletti said.

Scientists involved in the MSE division agree that working in the aerospace industry represents an economic and prestigious opportunity for the state.

Before this, Montana was never a big player in the aerospace industry, except for work with the Minuteman silos that dot the state and work at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls.

At first, Montana’s remote location was a problem.

“At first it was, ‘Where’s Montana?’ then ‘Where’s Butte?’ and then ‘Who’s MSE?’ “ Micheletti said. However, he added that as the groups worked together, that has all but vanished, and travel and conferencing is not difficult.

“It was a barrier that had to be overcome,” he said.

The company has also enjoyed increased visibility and has made its reputation with its technically complex research.

“We’ve made a believer out of them,” he said. “They are really promoting us.”

Local scientists are happy they can work and live in their state, given that many high-tech jobs are outside the state’s borders.

“I’m excited about it, my roots are in Montana,” said Chris Ossello, an analytical engineer, about being able to live where he wants and still have the challenging work he desires.

Micheletti noted that he had to work outside Montana for 14 years before he got the opportunity to return, and is excited about the future at MSE-TA.

“There is a lot of testing to be done here in the next couple years, and it will be done here in Butte,” he said.

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Reprinted under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law. Full copyright retained by the original publication. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.


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