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LU team to help NASA get closer to building a habitat on the Moon

Lamar University is one of seven university teams chosen to partner with NASA, to develop innovative design ideas that will help NASA advance and execute its Artemis program objectives.

The selections, announced June 11, are a part of the 2021 Moon to Mars eXploration Systems and Habitation Academic Innovation Challenge, sponsored by NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division and in partnership with the National Space Grant Foundation. A team at Lamar University was awarded at $49,000 grant to design an electric excavator arm for lunar mining and construction, which project initiator and LU senior Kevin Peterson has been thinking about for the past year.

“I am a big space nerd, and I'm very excited about the falling launch costs enabling a more permanent human presence off of this planet,” said Peterson. “Problem is, humans take a lot of resources to keep alive and a lot of propellant to move around.”

Even prior to learning of the NASA challenge and grant, Peterson had been researching ways to help humans move around and mine for minerals and water on the Moon. In his research he found propelling devices with hydraulic seals not feasible in extreme temperature swings or in the highly abrasive dust and vacuum pressure of the Moon. He daydreamed about a way to build a piece of equipment that had speed, power and versatility of classic construction machinery but without the hydraulics.

“During the standard boring first week of review in one of my classes, it hit me that hydraulic systems work, effectively, the same as pulleys,” said Peterson. “They both utilize a smaller force over a longer distance to enact a large force over a short distance. On the surface that seems like a 'duh' moment, but I think most people think of hydraulics as a pressure -based system rather than a displacement-based system.”

From that eureka moment, Peterson worked on the core idea of a piece of equipment, mulling over various methods of implementing the idea into a useful demo. A few of the requirements for space compatibility make the project even more challenging.

“Each pulley assembly needs to operate with a single motor, but be bidirectional. There needs to be a rigid structure to get a pulley to "push" with flexible cables rather than pull, and have long extension and retraction capabilities, while controlling the significant forces at play and keeping the design compact,” said Peterson. “As a student I don't have the means to build a full-sized test piece, so it was going to be purely on paper until I found the grant.”

In early April, Peterson’s dreams about building a pulley system to be used on the Moon seemed a bit more realistic. As he began searching for internships, with little luck due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he ran across NASA’s grant. The deadline was May 1, which didn’t give him a lot of time to prepare the proposal.

“It was very short notice and my first major grant proposal; I knew next to nothing about the process or departments to work with,” said Peterson.

He reached out to Drs. Kendrick Aung, interim department chair and professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Jiang Zhou, a professor in mechanical engineering and associate dean of the College of Engineering. The two professors were intrigued by Peterson’s proposal and enticed by his enthusiasm. They helped him complete the grant process proposing the project be part of the curriculum as a senior Capstone project.

“Both Dr. Zhou and I have mentored many senior Capstone design groups for the department of mechanical engineering for many years,” said Aung. “Some of the projects were space clothes sanitation system, Moon and Mars Habitat, Mars Rover, Mars Drill and Mars Sample Collection System through Johnson Space Center and Texas Space Grant Consortium.”

Aung took the faculty lead on the project because he is Lamar University’s representative to the Texas Space Grant Consortium and has more experience with NASA and aerospace projects. Aung also has his PhD. in aerospace engineering from University of Michigan and worked on space shuttle flight experiments as a doctoral student and post-doctoral fellow.  

As a senior Capstone project, design, building and testing will begin in August and run through May 2021. The goal is to design a mini-excavator boom, arm, bucket using a bidirectional pulley system. The substantial project, which will be fabricated in LU’s Measurement’s lab and assembled in the Science & Technology Makerspace, comes with some unique challenges that Peterson has already started working through.

“Normal steel gets brittle at the low temperatures of the Moon; there is no air to cool the motors; lubricants and materials have to be vacuum compatible; everything has to be extremely abrasion resistant; and ideally maintenance should account for the lack of dexterity from astronaut gloves,” said Peterson. “However, because nearly every piece of heavy equipment on Earth runs off of hydraulics, if we develop a nearly drop-in replacement, it would result in a whole portfolio of proven designs. If successful, this could be the enabling technology for our sustainable future in deep space.”

Aung believes that developing a prototype system by next spring is a challenging but attainable goal and has great potential for NASA. 

“NASA has been working on returning to the Moon by 2024 through the Artemis project so Kevin's idea is very relevant to NASA efforts to establish a habitat on the Moon,” said Aung. “We believe Kevin and the team will be successful in designing, analyzing, building and testing the prototype system by next spring and fulfilling all of NASA's requirements regarding the project, plus they'll provide NASA with essential and critical equipment for helping establish a habitat on the Moon and maybe Mars in the future.”