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SDSU rover design places third in NASA’s RASC-AL contest

Members of the SDSU entry in the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkage competition pose with RASC-AL program coordinator Pat Troutman. Pictured, from left, are Aiden Carstensen, Dylan Stephens, Alex Schaar, Troutman, Delaney Baumberger, Liam Murray and Braxton McGrath.
Members of the SDSU entry in the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkage competition pose with RASC-AL program coordinator Pat Troutman. Pictured, from left, are Aiden Carstensen, Dylan Stephens, Alex Schaar, Troutman, Delaney Baumberger, Liam Murray and Braxton McGrath.

Competing against the best and the brightest, a South Dakota State University engineering team finished third overall in a NASA contest and again was awarded for building the best prototype.

The SDSU students were one of 14 teams selected from 75 higher education entries to compete in the finals of the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) competition June 10-12 in Cocoa Beach, Florida. It is the second straight year for an SDSU team to qualify for the finals.

Traditionally, NASA only awards the top two entries in the overall results. In fact, this is only the third time in the contest’s 23-year history that third place has been recognized.

Liam Murray, a mechanical engineering graduate student adviser for the team, said, “The points were so close between Maryland and us that it came down to a judge’s vote. They (the judges) knew we did so well and invented a new suspension system, so they wanted to make sure we were properly recognized.”

NASA names finalists in four categories. SDSU was competing in the large-scale lunar crater prospector category.

The overall champion was from Virginia Tech, competing in the AI-powered self-replicating probes — an evolutionary approach. Finishing second overall was the University of Maryland, competing in the large-scale lunar crater prospector category — the same category as SDSU.

The job of prospector contestants was to design and build a rover that could explore rugged and permanently shadowed lunar south pole craters searching for water, ice and other volatiles. 

The SDSU team designed and built a rover prototype, which is a little smaller than a go-cart. It uses lidar and high-tech cameras to measure ground composition of lunar craters with the aim of locating ground ice.

It’s NASA’s long-term goal to be able to mine that ground ice and extract water, which could be used for drinking and possibly for creating rocket fuel.


SDSU finishes ahead of MIT, Stanford

While that’s a long way in the future, Murray is excited about the short-term future for the five mechanical engineering majors who made up SDSU’s RASC-AL team. Three graduated in May and are returning to SDSU for a master’s degree in mechanical engineering with an aerospace engineering emphasis. 

Two just completed their sophomore years and will be back to help steer another lunar project.

An excited Murray said, “We really felt like the people’s champion. Everyone was so kind and showing their appreciation for our in-depth effort in our project, including the judges.”

Among the 14 finalists were the University of Texas, Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


A fitting reward

The SDSU team gave a 25-minute presentation to a panel of NASA and industry experts and then faced 25 minutes of questions on June 10. The following days they listened to other presentations, participated in poster sessions and toured nearby Kennedy Space Center before attending the June 12 awards dinner.

Murray said hearing SDSU’s name called for third place overall and for having the best prototype was a tremendous reward for the hundreds of hours the team spent to get to that point.

“I was humbled and proud of our accomplishments. I believe our greatest achievement was inspiring this group of future leaders to pursue higher education at SDSU. By recognizing the benefits and potential of a master’s or Ph.D., they will be better equipped to shape the future of space exploration,” Murray said.


Prototype completion required midnight oil

The prototype award was especially gratifying because the team almost didn’t have a prototype to present.

The group flew into Cocoa Beach June 8. The prototype, shipped in three packages, was to arrive the same day at the Hilton Cocoa Beach, where the contest was held. However, when the team spoke to judges on the morning of June 10, only one package had arrived.

“The judges and National Institute of Aerospace staff were very accommodating, allowing us time to reconstruct the prototype by Wednesday (June 12) morning’s poster session since FedEx was unfortunately late with the shipping,” Murray said.

While the other boxes arrived late in the day June 10, the team’s challenges were by no means over.

“There was a bogie (wheel suspension part) snapped in half, electronic components were malfunctioning and motors broken due to FedEx mishandling the packages. We got some J-B Weld, soldering tape and backup parts. Through the evenings and very early mornings (2 to 3 a.m. June 11 and 12), we overcame problem after problem all the while doing the conference every day,” Murray continued.

“By Wednesday morning, as shown in the testing video, we got to test the prototype at 2:31 a.m. and show the judges what we were capable of when problems arise. They appreciated our dedication and engineering skills. 

“During the extra time given to judge the prototype Wednesday, the judges were elated with our design process and capability of our prototype. They hope SDSU continues to return every year with an impressive display of empirical testing through prototypes.”


Patent process started on suspension system

Murray said the most innovative feature of the rover prospector the team built is a double wishbone bogie suspension system.

A bogie system, a modular subassembly of wheels and axles (think of a rail car), is common in space applications, team member Dylan Stephens said.

However, the double wishbone feature (think a wheel on each end of a “V”) is unique. Rather than four wheels in traditional locations, there are double wishbones at each of the points, thus a total of eight wheels. There also are linear actuators at each of the four corners to allow for vertical movement, Murray said.

In fact, the students’ design is unique enough that they have submitted an invention disclosure, the first step in the patent process.


2023, 2024 projects may be in NASA plans

The 2024 RASC-AL contest featured many of the same judges as in 2023 and as well as the same program coordinator. In 2023, SDSU won the lunar surface transport category by building a highly customized forklift that featured an innovative drivetrain, flexible wheels, a cargo locking mechanism and a universal attachment mechanism for auxiliary systems.

At the 2024 contest, Murray said he learned that program coordinator Pat Troutman, who is also program assistant, technical for NASA’s Strategy and Architecture Office, has taken a liking to SDSU’s projects.

Murray said Troutman “has taken that (2023) concept up the (NASA) food chain, and he wants something like the POSEID-N rover to be passed up in administration, and he loved our innovation and dedication.”

The SDSU team named its 2023 projects ANTS (Artemis Navigating Transporter System) and its 2024 project POSEID-N (Prospecting Observation System for Exploration, Investigation, Discovery, and Navigation rover).

The RASC-AL team consisted of Delaney Baumberger, team lead, Blair, Nebraska, senior; Alex Schaar, Sioux Falls, senior; Dylan Stephens, Redfield, senior; Aiden Carstensen, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, sophomore; and Braxton McGrath, Amana, Iowa, sophomore; with Murray, of Omaha, graduate adviser.