SDSU engineering students are competing against the best of all possible competition to build a product to operate in the worst of all possible conditions.
Space Trajectory, a team of mechanical and electrical engineering students, was one of 15 finalists selected for NASA’s Break the Ice Lunar Challenge, which is designed to develop new technologies that could support a sustained human presence on the moon by the end of the decade. With NASA scheduled to send astronauts to the surface of the moon in 2024, this has taken increased priority.
NASA has identified several technology gaps related to harvesting and moving large quantities of resources on the moon.
Those gaps include having hardware capable of operating in extreme cold and in permanent to near-permanent darkness. “Robotic systems for excavation will need to withstand the harsh environments inside permanently shadowed regions at the lunar South Pole, where ice has been observed and is the targeted landing site for crewed Artemis missions,” NASA reported while announcing the challenge.
“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,” according to Denise Morris, acting Centennial Challenges program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Competing against private firms
The 15 finalists were announced Dec. 14, 2022, and SDSU was one of only three or four colleges to be among them. The rest are private aerospace companies.
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 received 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.
Finalists shooting for $1.5M
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.
In Level 3, qualifying teams will put their protypes to the test in a head-to-head onsite competition for a shot at $1.5 million in prizes.
At this point, manufacturing the equipment is wrapped up and the team is planning to begin testing of the excavation system May 29.
Todd Letcher, an associate professor in mechanical engineering and project adviser, said the excavator’s job is to grind away at a soft concrete ditch that is eight-feet wide and 150-feet long.
This mix of concrete breaks down similar to sand and has a mix of fine and course gravel, he said. Team members will take turns operating the almost-fully autonomous equipment from 7 a.m. to 8 to 9 p.m. at a gravel pit at the south edge of Brookings. “Overnight we get to recharge our batteries, both human and our rover batteries,” Letcher said.
“We had the right people at right time. We had people with prior experience that helped us get a head start and a bunch of students who were willing to work extremely hard to make their goals become a reality.” — Associate professor Todd Letcher
Team has veteran core
Final testing data submissions are due Oct. 27. NASA hasn’t reported when the Level 3 finalists will be announced.
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.
Letcher and Lohsandt are confident in the team. “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.
‘An extraordinary year’
Letcher said the team is made up of students “who want to win, who want to have a good story to tell.
“This has been an extraordinary year for our department. To have all three of our NASA project entries advance to finals is amazing.
“I would guess there aren’t many schools in the country that have this much success in a single year. In the past, we’ve had individual teams that have had success, but I don’t think we’ve even entered three teams in a single year before.”
Lunar logic begins in sophomore year
Letcher added the groundwork for 2022-23 was set at least two years earlier, when the students were sophomores in his ME 230 class.
“When I’m choosing projects for that class, I’m thinking what types of projects I am going to want to be doing in two years for senior design. I get them thinking in that direction two years in advance whether they realize it or not.
“A majority of these people, when they went through ME 230 two years ago, we did projects on moon rovers. They’ve been thinking about things like dust mitigation, lack of gravity, really frigid temperatures since we did those projects. In the back of their minds, they’ve been developing solutions all along whether they thought about in the front of their mind or not,” Letcher said.
It’s been front of mind since January 2022, when most of the students signed up for an independent study class with Letcher and started on the design work.
Speaking on the department’s overall success this year, Letcher said, “We had the right people at right time. We had people with prior experience that helped us get a head start and a bunch of students who were willing to work extremely hard to make their goals become a reality.”
Break the Ice Lunar Challenge finalists
- Aurora Robotics, Fairbanks, Alaska
- Cislune Excavators, Alhambra, California
- Ice Busters, Olathe, Kansas
- Lunar Wombats, Seattle, Washington
- Michigan Technological University’s Planetary Surface Technology Development Lab, Houghton, Michigan
- Moog Inc., Elma, New York
- Moon Industry Inc., Netherlands
- OffWorld Robotic Mining Team, Aldie, Virginia
- Redwire Space, Jacksonville, Florida
- Space Trajectory, Brookings, South Dakota
- Starpath, San Francisco, California
- Team xTrac Planetoid Mines, Albuquerque, New Mexico
- Team Chandra, Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India
- Terra Engineering, Gardena, California
- The Ice Diggers, Golden, Colorado