Journey to the center of…the Moon!

UAHuntsville ‘Wormbot’ captures first place 


HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (May 10, 2011 ) — The students enrolled in Dr. Christina Carmen’s senior design class in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at The University of Alabama in Huntsville had the option of choosing from 10 projects.

But for Bradley Boaz, Charles Boyles, Emory Eledui, Ben Gasser, Joshua Johnson, Ben Long, and Nathan Toy, it was the Lunar Wormbot that seemed to offer the best opportunity for a unique, real-world experience.

Their hunch and their hard work paid off. The team captured first place in the prestigious NASA Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) Systems Engineering Paper Competition. UAHuntsville won the contest ahead of second place Temple University and Old Dominion, which finished third. Past winners of this competition include MIT in 2010, Virginia Tech in 2009 and Georgia Tech in 2008.

The team won $3,500 for their effort and has been invited to the last space shuttle launch, now scheduled for June 28. And, while they are down there, they will do further testing on the Wormbot at the Kennedy Space Center.

 “I wanted a senior design project that was outside the ordinary and something big,” says Eledui, “and the Lunar Wormbot proved to be just that.”

Just what is the Lunar Wormbot? Carmen describes it as a robot designed to drill into the lunar surface (or regolith) and extract samples that can be returned to Earth for study. She herself learned of the project during a fellowship at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) last summer.

“I was talking to some MSFC engineers about my senior design class, which is called product realization,” says Carmen. “They brought up the Lunar Wormbot, which was started at the National Space Science and Technology Center by Dr. Jessica Gaskin. I thought it would make a great senior design project.”

The students were also enthusiastic, but as Johnson candidly points out, “most of us are seniors and have a lot of other things going on, so we wanted to minimize our design.” They decided to concentrate on just one subsystem – the locomotion. “We focused on how it’s going to get from point A to point B,” he says.

The team wanted something that would be both effective and energy efficient. After careful research and analysis, they opted to have the Wormbot’s locomotion simulate the burrowing of – you guessed it – a worm. “That way you, can fire one segment at a time, reducing the overall power requirement,” says Gasser. “The auger, or drill, head would be moving constantly, but the rest would be inching down like a worm.”

The eventual goal, Gasser explains, “is for the Wormbot to go down 15 meters. But for our immediate goal, we’re looking to see how far down it will go and whether or not there are any corrections needed. After that, the ideal is to get the Wormbot submerged.”

Carmen points out that the team is not building the version that will actually be used on the lunar surface; rather, they’re building a ground-based Wormbot that can be used for testing here on Earth. To that end, the team will head down to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in late June to test their design on KSC’s lunar regolith test bed.

“The KSC test bed is the closest simulation of lunar regolith on Earth – it’s made to test things like lunar rovers,” says Johnson. “Sand just doesn’t describe the properties of regolith and how abrasive and incredibly bad it is. Imagine sand is like a softball, whereas regolith would be like holding a shard of glass.”

The challenge is figuring out how to protect the Wormbot’s internal electrical and mechanical components from the erosive effects of this environment. “We’ve looked at several different types of polymers, but even those are somewhat limited as far as what’s readily available,” says Eledui. “So because of our budget constraints, we’re looking at leather. In short, it’s cheap, flexible, and resistant to abrasion.”

If that sounds like an out-of-the box idea, that’s because it is.

“Initially, we thought of protective clothing. Top-quality motorcycle clothing is leather-based,” says Gasser. “And since abrasion is one of our main considerations, leather turned out to be a very good product.”

But coming up with a design solution and actually fabricating it are two different things. The team is currently having difficulty with parts procurement, which Gasser says “isn’t going well. Most parts aren’t locally available.” Moreover, the team needs to get parts – specifically the Wormbot’s auger head – from Louisiana Tech University, whose sister team there is responsible for “the design and optimization of the auger as well as the sampling segment,” says Johnson.

Carmen said “there will be some continuation of the project after the official end of the semester to finish the Wormbot.” But whereas for most students any extension of the school year would be cause for complaint, that is hardly the case for this dedicated group of proto-engineers, all of whom recognize and appreciate this one-of-a-kind opportunity.

“There’s no way that I would have been able to get an experience like this without Dr. Carmen,” says Eledui. “It’s allowed me to see the whole idea of engineering, from the start of a concept that wasn’t fully fleshed out, though refining the design, to turning the design into actual parts you can see and that work. I didn’t just read about it or hear someone tell me about it; I got to experience it for myself.”

Like Eledui, Gasser also cites the hands-on opportunities afforded by the project as especially valuable. “A large portion of the process, most engineers would never do,” he says. “We’re actually doing the manufacturing. We’re not shipping it out.”

But for Johnson, it goes beyond the classroom – all the way to the moon. “It’s possible that some components of our design may wind up involved in the Lunar X PRIZE,” says Johnson, referring to the Google-sponsored $30-million competition to send a robot to the moon in the next few years. And the way he looks at it, there’s still plenty more to discover beyond what we already know.

“There’s a lot known about the moon from lunar orbiters, but when they sent the Apollo missions there, all the samples brought back never came from more than 3 meters below the lunar surface. And I don’t think they went more than a football field away from their lander,” he says. “So out of the entire moon, there’s a lot left to be explored. It’s like when Columbus landed in Cuba, he only saw that, not the entire landscape.”


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contact Ray Garner