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SDSU’s lunar project catches eye of NASA judges

Space Trajectory team members pose by the excavator wheel that will be used in their Break the Ice Lunar Challenge project. Members are, from left, Max Selbach, Ben Louwagie, Tom Neumeister, John Ziegelski, Devin Lundberg, Parker Brandt, adviser Todd Letcher, Brock Heppner, Tate Mueller, Austin Lohsandt, Elaine Hines and Allea Klauenberg. Not pictured are Ben Diersen and adviser Jason Sternhagen.
Space Trajectory team members pose by the excavator wheel that will be used in their Break the Ice Lunar Challenge project. Members are, from left, Max Selbach, Ben Louwagie, Tom Neumeister, John Ziegelski, Devin Lundberg, Parker Brandt, adviser Todd Letcher, Brock Heppner, Tate Mueller, Austin Lohsandt, Elaine Hines and Allea Klauenberg. Not pictured are Ben Diersen, Zac Bergjord, Dante Tarabelsi, Carter Waggoner and Eric Derr.

Judges from NASA and other experts have selected a proposal from a group of South Dakota State University engineering students to compete with 14 other teams in the next stage of the $3.5 million Break the Ice Lunar Challenge.

Most of the SDSU students are seniors entering their final semester.

“Only 15 teams from around the world were accepted. It looks like about three or four teams are from universities, and the rest of the teams are established aerospace engineering companies or startups,” Todd Letcher, an associate professor in mechanical engineering, said. 

“Of all the teams, we’re probably the only team primarily consisting of undergraduate students. We have one mechanical engineering graduate student, 12 mechanical engineering undergraduate students, two electrical engineering undergraduate students, one recent mechanical engineering alumnus helping outside of his regular full-time job and two faculty members (electrical engineering’s Jason Sternhagen and Letcher). 

“I’m very proud of our team’s accomplishments so far. It’s exciting to be in the mix with experienced professional full-time engineers and scientists.”


SDSU builds on top finish in 2021

On Dec. 14, NASA announced the 15 teams it had selected to move on to build and test full-size prototypes. The list includes teams from India and the Netherlands as well as Redwire Space of Jacksonville, Florida, a publicly traded corporation with 522 employees in eight locations that focuses on space commercialization. In 2021, Redwire won the $125,000 top prize in the first phase of the NASA competition.

SDSU was one of 10 finalists in that competition (teams finishing fourth through 10th weren’t ranked) and received a $25,000 prize.

In the second phase of the NASA competition, the 13 U.S. teams will receive equal shares of NASA’s $500,000 prize purse. Letcher said that $38,500 will be paired with the $25,000 from 2021, the majority of an earlier $10,000 grant from the South Dakota Space Consortium and smaller sponsor contributions to build an excavator, a dump truck, a battery-swapping rover and a battery charging station.

Twenty-five teams competed in the Phase II Level 1 contest. Teams were tasked with designing a robotic system for digging and moving large quantities of icy moon dirt, or regolith, which is found in the coldest, darkest places on the lunar surface.

In Level 2, the teams have until early fall to build and test their prototypes. The team’s equipment must be able to run 15 days straight and excavate 1,760 pounds (800 kilograms) of icy lunar soil per day and transport it to the drop site about one-third of a mile away, Letcher said.


Team includes 3 returnees from ’21 squad

Three members of the SDSU team were part of the successful 2021 team—Ben Diersen, a May 2022 mechanical engineering graduate from Brookings; Austin Lohsandt, a mechanical engineering graduate student from Madison; and Brock Heppner, a mechanical engineering senior from Crookston, Minnesota.

Lohsandt has worked with Letcher since spring 2021 on the Break the Ice Lunar Challenge and in summer/fall 2021 worked on a Moon to Mars Ice & Prospecting Challenge in which the space agency sought ideas from college students on how to collect water from underground ice deposits on Mars. SDSU was a top 10 finalist in that contest too.

His experience in designing equipment to operate in low-gravity environments was helpful in Space Trajectory’s design work for the current project. “I understood the ins and outs of what would work and what wouldn’t work and understood the need for time management and creating project goals so little things don’t come back to bite you,” Lohsandt said.

He expects the coming months to be “pretty crazy, pretty hectic. There’s lots of work to be done, fabricating and building what we designed.”


Students bring diverse background to event

But Letcher and Lohsandt are confident in the team they have assembled. “The students have a variety of backgrounds from farm kids to tinkerers, some have backgrounds in writing code and doing computer simulation and electrical engineering,” Lohsandt said.

Letcher said the team is made up of students “who want to win, who want to have a good story to tell.”

They are Zac Bergjord, of Marshall, Minnesota; Parker Brandt, of Britton; Allea Klauenberg, of Ogden, Iowa; Benjamin Louwagie, of Cottonwood, Minnesota; Devin Lundberg, of Omaha, Nebraska; Tate Mueller, of Pierre; Thomas Neumeister, of Sioux Falls; Max Selbach, of Glendale, Wisconsin; Dante Tarabelsi, of Sioux Falls; John Ziegelski, of Scandia, Minnesota; and Carter Waggoner, of Rapid City—all mechanical engineering majors; and Elaine Hines, of Huron; and Eric Derr—both electrical engineering majors.


Great learning experience

Most of the students have been with the project since January 2022, when they signed up for an independent study class with Letcher and started on the design work. They divided into subgroups to design each aspect of the project. Klauenberg is responsible for the battery-swapping rover and the charging station.

 “When I started last semester, it was an elective class. It wasn’t as intense as it is now. It’s so much different than any other class we take because it’s all teamwork. You have to collaborate a lot more. The designs we have to come up with are not even close to what we have to do in other engineering classes,” she said.

“(But) through that I’ve learned so much more than in other classes with the degree at which we have to complete our design and describe our design. I’m extremely glad that I joined. It’s going to get me so much farther than my internship is.”

By May, Klauenberg will be an SDSU graduate and getting ready for her first engineering job. First, she needs to be in the SDSU engineering shop fabricating the battery-swapping rover and testing battery performance.

“I’m a little stressed about it. I plan on being in the shop as much as I can. (We started Jan. 4) to get as much started as we can before we have other classes. I’m excited, but I’m also a little worried about how much free time I will have. I think this semester is going to be quite the couple months,” said Klauenberg, who is taking a full semester of classes.


Project planning began a year ago

NASA didn’t release official rules for the Phase II Level 1 competition until this summer, but by starting work last spring semester, the students had a good jump start and only need to make a few tweaks after final rules came out, Letcher said. He said the team’s focus is on having lightweight, energy-efficient equipment to make it easier to get the gear to the moon.

Aluminum will be used for most of the equipment. “I just bought $7,000 worth of aluminum tubing last week,” Letcher said.

The excavator is to be the size of a small car. The dump truck and battery-swapping rover are to be the size of a small wheelbarrow. Wheels for the equipment will be two feet in diameter and the drive motors come from electric wheelbarrows.

The three-foot excavator wheel was built and tested as part of the team’s Level 1 competition to be sure its design plans would pan out. The combination bucket wheel/asphalt grinder has grinding surfaces on front and side of the wheel. The wheel also scoops and deposits the regolith into a conveyor bucket that takes the lunar dirt back to the main body. 

“Durability is a major focus the design. We want the design to be high tech and the operation to be low tech. It will be advanced as far as materials but simple in mechanical function,” Lohsandt said.


Ultimate goal: infrastructure on moon

Denise Morris, acting Centennial Challenges program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, said, “Technologies and hardware from the Break the Ice Lunar Challenge will get us one step closer to excavating icy regolith on the lunar surface, providing critical water resources and excavation activities needed to build the infrastructure on the moon.”

The development of technologies used in lunar exploration is measured in decades. Most of the students on the Space Trajectory team will graduate in a semester.

But Letcher said it promises to be an exciting semester that will benefit students even before NASA officials decide which teams advance in the competition.

“They’re not going to have too many people competing with them (for jobs) that have this type of experience,” he said.



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