Two Seattle-area students are finalists in NASA’s design competition for lunar-digging robots

Project Stardust by Ke “Max” Jiang, left, and Terebro, by Mason Lysaght. (Lunabotic Images)

Dig this – two Seattle-area college students were semi-finalists in a nationwide competition run by NASA in which kids in kindergarten through 12th grade were tasked with designing a robot that can pick up and haul soil lunar.

The winners of the Lunabotics Junior Contest were named at the end of March and among the 20 children in the final pack were Ke “Max” Jiang from Bellevue, Washington, and Mason Lysaght from Snohomish. The competition attracted approximately 2,300 design submissions.

Entrants had to make a drawing of their robot design, either as an original artwork, 3D model, diagram or photograph of a prototype. A written summary of the machine design was also required.

NASA based the competition on its ambition to return to the Moon and future needs related to digging and moving lunar soil, or regolith, from an area at the lunar south pole to a storage container near a base. planned by Artemis Moon. The planned robots – no larger than 3.5ft x 2ft x 2ft, had to address concerns such as how the robots would pick up and dig the regolith; how much dirt would be transported on each trip; and how the machines would deal with the lunar dust clinging to everything.

The lunar regolith will be used for multiple purposes, according to NASA, such as building a lunar base using lunar concrete; harvest water that can also be used for rocket fuel; and extract any metals or minerals.

We caught up with Max and Mason to learn more about their designs, inspiration, views on technology and future aspirations. Answers edited for length and clarity.

Ke ‘Max’ Jiang – Project Stardust

Ke “Max” Jiang. (Photo courtesy of Ke Jiang)

GeekWire: How old are you and where do you go to school?

Max: I am 17 years old. I’m a junior at Interlake High School in Bellevue. It’s a great school with a rigorous International Baccalaureate program, and I’m lucky to have many teachers who exposed me to advanced topics in physics, chemistry, design technology, and design economics. objects.

GW: How long have you been interested in robotics?

Max: When I was little, I loved watching and playing with things that could drive, fly, or function on their own at the flick of a switch. From the age of 3, I sat for hours putting on toy rails of different designs, and by the age of 8, I was assembling large sets of Lego and using all available shapes to design my own planes and boats, even adding robotic engines. and make them move.

My college had a workshop that allowed me to use real construction tools for the first time. I was able to design and program toy cars and drones, earning me and my team second place in the Space Elevator Challenge at the Museum of Flight. During this time I also started using computer design software and simulation games like Kerbal Space Program.

In high school, I was able to participate in Johns Hopkins University’s Engineering Innovation (EI) program in grade 10 and was exposed to rigorous design processes from ideation to implementation. It was great fun working in a completely remote team, everyone doing their best to build the strongest “Golden Gate” bridge out of spaghetti, wax paper and glue!

More details on the Stardust project. (Lunabotic image)

GW: How did you come up with the idea for Lunabotics?

Max: I started by defining my main objective – a key design principle, so that I knew what to maximize and where to make the necessary trade-offs. This challenge was launched to dig, transport and dump lunar regolith as efficiently as possible. In my assessment, going back and forth across unfamiliar terrain was a major risk factor, so my goal was to maximize the carrying capacity – and therefore the size – of the rover, which in turn would reduce the number of journeys made and would minimize the risk of missed journeys. I also learned the practical lesson that any good design must consider the specific conditions in which the design is operated. In this challenge, operating on the moon means navigating rough terrain in permanent darkness, encountering lunar dust, and sustained unmanned operations. Finally, reliability is key. So I decided to integrate proven technologies to make the rover work optimally.

With that in mind, I set about designing the basic structure of my rover, the Stardust – a large regolith container on top of a frame supported by a set of six wheels. To facilitate automation, the regolith container can turn around and empty the regolith quickly, just like a dump truck. Similarly, existing technology like the Rocker-Bogie suspension system was used on Stardust’s undercarriage, so that it could move easily over rough terrain, and a modern industrial design bucket-wheel excavator was added. added for sustained regolith collection. Following the basic structure, I added a power source (two radioisotope thermoelectric generators) to provide continuous power during the fortnight lunar night, battery packs, communication equipment and a camera navigation. Finally, I added additional detail to show vital subsystems, such as electrode circuits to repel moon dust.

GW: What technology are you most excited about right now?

Max: I am very excited about the development of reusable rockets and spaceplanes, as well as related technologies such as new thrusters, combined cycle spaceplane engines, etc. Making spaceplanes reusable would significantly reduce costs, and reliable launch and return will attract more interest and investment. Updates from SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Reaction Engines Limited and CASIC are all what I follow at every turn. I believe that one day ordinary people like you and I will be able to afford a seat in a spaceship and enjoy the view of Earth from above.

GW: What is your dream job?

Max: My dream job is to become an aerospace engineer, preferably specializing in propulsion. I would be very proud to contribute to the advancement of space exploration, making it accessible to all children who dream of flying to go faster and further.

Mason Lysaght – Terebro (Latin exercise)

A sketch of the lunar robot Terebro by Mason Lysaght. (Lunabotic image)

GeekWire: How old are you and where do you go to school?

Mason: I’m 14 years old. I go to Valley View Middle School in Snohomish.

GW: How long have you been interested in robotics?

Mason Lysaght. (Photo courtesy of Mason Lysaght)

Mason: I’ve always been curious about how things work, whether it’s robotics, natural phenomena, chemistry, etc. For the past two years, I’ve been blessed with subscriptions to robotics and engineering kits so that I can better explore my interest in these fields. The Lunabotics Junior Challenge was a great way to channel my creativity and scientific interest, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to participate.

GW: How did you come up with the idea for Lunabotics?

Mason: I took a lot of inspiration from NASA’s successful rovers like Perseverance. I have tweaked the designs of these rovers and recreated them to better meet the demands of the challenge: to be able to efficiently dig and transport lunar regolith. I then added more features, like the many power sources (an MMRTG, a lithium-ion battery pack, and solar panels fitted with brooms), a shovel, and extra wheels in the front to get the regolith.

GW: What technology are you most excited about right now?

Mason: There are many types of technologies that interest me! The possibilities with AI and VR are intriguing (and a little scary). Of course, I’m excited about technologies like Perseverance or the James Webb Telescope because they could really advance our efforts in space exploration.

GW: What is your dream job?

Mason: Since I’m still in college and not sure what my future holds, I would say I have a dream the fields rather than a specific job. I would obviously be interested in careers related to robotics or engineering, and I love the idea of ​​pursuing aerospace technology. Honestly, working for NASA would be a dream for me.

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