SDSU Advances in NASA Challenge

Posted on: December 11, 2023   |   Category: News & Updates
Nasa's Break The Ice Image

Article written by Dave Graves and published on the SDSU website.

NASA has narrowed the field to six in its lunar soil excavating contest, and a team of students from South Dakota State University is among the group left in the hunt for a $1 million top prize.

Conceived in 2020, the Break the Ice Lunar Challenge tasked innovators with creating robotic systems that can navigate the rugged terrain of the Lunar South Pole, dig up its icy soil and transport it to another location, where, in theory, water could be extracted from the soil.

There were two earlier design and prototype phases in which SDSU advanced. In the latest stage, SDSU was one of 15 finalists invited to give their prototypes a 15-day test.

Nine entities completed the 15-day durability testing, attempting to have their equipment excavate up to 800 kilograms (1,760 pounds) of soil daily for 15 consecutive days and then document their work by video and lengthy reports, which were due Oct. 27. When NASA announced the six finalists, only one other was strictly composed of college students.

NASA awarded the top three places and added three runners-up. SDSU, which competes under the team name Space Trajectory, and Michigan Tech, which competes as MTU Planetary Surface Technology Development Lab, were both runners-up.

Corporate entities take top prizes

Going to work with the $300,000 first prize from the last phase is Starpath Robotics, San Francisco, with Terra Engineering, Gardena, California, grabbing the $200,000 second prize. Third place, which carries a $125,000 award, went to The Ice Diggers, Golden, Colorado.

Starpath has four full-time employees and a handful of technical engineering interns and contractors and was formed in mid-2022 to manufacture spacecraft propellant. Terra is a robotics firm that has been in business since 2010. The Ice Diggers is a cooperative effort between Colorado School of Mines and Lunar Outposts, a commercial space robotics firm founded in 2017 through a venture capital effort.

The other runner-up was Cislune Excavators, Los Angles, a firm that specializes in producing and supplying lunar-derived propellants.

All runners-up, including SDSU, received a $75,000 award.

Group W Rovers Small

Members of the Space Trajectory 2023-24 team assemble around the rovers built for this summer’s contest, which advanced SDSU to the finals of a NASA contest. Pictured, from row, from left, are Allea Klauenberg, Andrew Clark, Rylan Lipetzky and adviser Todd Letcher. Back row, Tjaden Wright, John Christianson, Nick Sieler, Cameron Jensen, Leif Bredeson and Carter Waggoner. Not pictured are Austin Lohsandt, Nesrin Al Zawad and Maverick Beckmann.

Selection an honor for current, former students

Todd Letcher, an associate professor in the mechanical engineering department at SDSU, has overseen State’s effort, which has gone through three cycles of students.

“It’s tremendously exciting for current and former students who have worked on Space Trajectory to be able to continue this challenge. I must admit it was driving me a little bit crazy waiting for the announcement. After NASA released the results, I probably got about 40 to 50 Slack pings in about an hour from past and current team members,” Letcher said.

NASA made the announcement Dec. 6, but Letcher said, “We have been preparing for this since the day we finished testing in mid-August and even before that.

“Throughout this contest, our teams have been comprised almost exclusively of undergraduate students. Many of our competitors were space company start-ups, and there were even a couple of international entities. I am tremendously proud of the dedication past students have given to this project, especially the handful that pushed the project though summer testing,” Letcher said.

Jason Sternhagen, an electrical engineering research associate who has worked side by side with Sternhagen, added, “This achievement really says a lot about the tenacity of our students and the excellent opportunities available at SDSU.”

He expects the head-to-head finals to be held in May 2024 in a NASA-designated facility in the South. NASA hasn’t released specifics.

Reduced-gravity conditions for finals

Mark Hilburger, a senior research engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, did state, “Bringing the competitors to one central location is the best way to end a challenge like Break the Ice because it provides us with an opportunity to observe and test their designs in a common relevant environment.

“These technologies must be thoroughly tested to survive on the moon, so a test opportunity like this helps the teams prove if their prototypes are up to the task.”

Expected testing includes excavation under reduced gravity and transportation over complex terrain, including rocks, craters, slopes, turns and loose granular soil.

Letcher said NASA achieves reduced gravity by using a crane to partially lift the contestants’ excavator, thus simulating the loss of five-sixths of the Earth’s gravity.

“We will have to add lifting points (on the excavator) and test operating on reduced gravity. But we’ve been thinking about this since Day One,” Letcher said.

Reconstruction begins in January

Semester tests and the coming Christmas break will slow work on Space Trajectory updates, but not stop things, Letcher said. In addition to the excavator, students have built a dump truck and a couple battery-swamping rovers, all out of heavy-duty aluminum. By May, the team will have a new dump truck rover and an updated excavator.

“We will be finalizing the designs for the rovers in the next two weeks and ordering supplies. Then when students return in January, we will begin building,” he said.

While Letcher has been the consistent element as the team passed through the various stages of the contest, it hasn’t been a project by the professor. “It’s always a joint effort. They have an idea. I have an idea. I know that any one of our ideas is not the best idea. Our collective ideas are the best ideas,” Letcher said.

For example, he cited plans to make the excavator dig faster, including a better motor to allow it to run continuously, and design changes to allow it to move more easily around the course.

“Our beginning design conversations always start with sketches on a whiteboard. We dream big and then determine what is possible on our budget and timeline. It’s also nice to get out-of-the-box thinking from young engineers that have new and interesting ideas that experienced people overlook. Together, we work on making those ideas come to life.”

Space Grant Consortium helps effort

Other planned changes are a more mobile dump truck that is also larger, so fewer trips are needed to deliver the excavated soil. The dump truck also will provide power to the excavator, thereby eliminating the need for a battery-swapping rover to service the excavator.

The 2024 rovers will be lighter, more durable and more energy efficient, he said.

Construction of quasi lunar fleet will be done in the production lab of Chicoine Architecture, Mathematics and Engineering Hall using the NASA prize money and a $40,000 grant from the South Dakota Space Grant Consortium, which also will help cover travel costs.

For Allea Klauenberg, a May mechanical engineering graduate who turned down a full-time job to come back to grad school and work on Space Trajectory again, the advancement to the finals is a dream come true.

“I would absolutely love continuing to work on NASA competitions and eventually take a position with NASA,” she said.

While South Dakota is certainly not considered an aerospace hub, that is starting to change. Part of that is due to the success of Space Trajectory and other SDSU entries in recent NASA contests, but also due to broadening engineering community in the state. 

Letcher noted, “In years past, it was tough to get an engineering job in South Dakota if you weren’t a civil engineer. Now not even the sky is the limit.” 

Current team members

Joining Klauenberg, of Ogden, Iowa, are senior Carter Waggoner, of Rapid City, and 2023 master’s graduate Austin Lohsandt, of Madison, the only returning team members, and newcomers Nesrin Al Zawad, of Al Qatif, Saudi Arabia; Maverick Beckmann, of Slayton, Minnesota; John Christianson, of Jefferson City, Missouri; Tyler Iverson, of LeMars, Iowa; Rylan Lipetzky, of Sioux Falls; Nick Sieler, of Sioux Falls; Andrew Clark, of Sioux Falls; Cameron Jensen, of Sioux City, Iowa; Tjaden Wright, of Sioux Falls; and Leif Bredeson, of Darlington, Wisconsin.

Clark, Jensen, Wright and Bredeson are electrical engineering majors. All others are mechanical engineering majors.

In the finals, there are two prizes: $1 million for first and $500,000 for second with teams also awarded opportunities to test their concepts at one of NASA’s thermal vacuum chambers, which can simulate the temperature and atmospheric pressure conditions at the Lunar South Pole.