Back in May, the Visitor’s Complex of the Kennedy Space Center — a popular tourist destination — was taken over by a lively group of young college students. Although the opening of the Atlantis exhibit was fast approaching (which houses the retired Space Shuttle Atlantis), the students were not there to relax and enjoy the sights. They came to compete in the fourth annual Lunabotics competition hosted by NASA at the Visitor’s Complex. The goal of the competition is to encourage STEM education among college students, while also helping NASA develop an actual lunar rover prototype. The teams design and build a lunar rover that mines a simulated version of the regolith soil found on the moon. These students are some of the best and brightest in their academic field, and NASA is taking full advantage of their talents.
As mentioned, the primary goal of Lunabotics is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education. The teams learn engineering in a hands-on way by designing and building lunar rover prototypes. At the Lunabotics competition, they put their machines to the test in a pit of simulated regolith, competing with other teams to mine the moist soil. In addition to the amount of regolith the Lunabots mine, teams earn points for making a lighter and more compact bot, dust-proofing their machine, having a multidisciplinary team, and other criteria.
These categories were designed to encourage teams to develop creative solutions to problems that a lunar rover would likely face in a real world application on the moon. Every unique idea that the teams develop brings NASA one step closer to fine-tuning their actual lunar rover.
Students learn other skills for their future STEM careers in the competition, as well. The teams are required to write a systems engineering paper. This is basically a roadmap of how the students will design and build their bot. It is a frequent task of engineers in the real world. By learning this skill at Lunabotics, participants will have a leg up as they enter into their chosen field.
An outreach project where teams are required to give presentations or demonstrations about Lunabotics in their local community teaches the students how to educate others about their work.
A slide presentation judged by NASA engineers is good practice for similar presentations that the students may do while working in their future careers.
This year at Lunabotics was exciting, as teams are branching out further and further to create innovative Lunabots. One notable change this year was that the number of teams experimenting with autonomous control systems seemed to have increased over previous years. This is an important step in the design process for a real lunar rover, as NASA’s rovers typically use an autonomous control system.