Earlier this month, NASA researchers hailing from Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia watched with Virginia Tech and University of Central Florida students as a sounding rocket launched. The students had an extra special interest in this launch as their Mars rover concepts were on board.
By any design, a Mars rover must be an autonomous vehicle capable of traversing the rough planetary terrain. While many of us out there are science and NASA project buffs, for the most part we get a lot of our ideas from science fiction books and movies about how these types of machines should look. The Mars rover is a pretty simple design from where the layperson stands, featuring a large block of metal in the center and then legs that protrude outward for mobility. In its capacity for exploring Mars, NASA defines the Mars rover as a robot geologist. It is actually comprised of a body (along with protrusions for a camera), a computer for brains, temperature and communications controls, and ‘arms and legs’ for movement.And while creating such a machine certainly offers a challenge, getting it there is another issue altogether. NASA engineers were looking for a better way to send Mars rover concepts into space, according to Dr. Jamshid Samareh, research engineer at NASA Langley’s Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate (SACD), who worked with the university students. The project centered around creating rover concepts that were ‘rigid and deployable’ and able to withstand all phases of the journey.
“Part of the problem we keep running into is packaging,” said Dr. Samareh. “We have to carry a lot of payloads – rovers, habitats and such. We want to package them on top of the launch vehicle.”
He was able to look at past projects to understand exactly what they did not want, as historically many concepts were too cumbersome.
“They’re not realistic,” he said. “They cannot be efficiently packed.”
Dr. Samareh was intent on streamlining the concepts that would go into space, with 3D printed test models created by one student from the University of Central Florida, and 30 from Virginia Tech.SACD Internal Research and Development was responsible for funding the project. It was obvious that for more efficiency in travel, the concepts would need to be compact, foldable, and more innovative than ever before. Dr. Samareh invited the students to go all out with their ideas, even inviting the ‘crazy’ concepts. In the end, they narrowed the selection down to a few ideas.
“They come up with these ideas that I cannot come up with,” said Dr. Samareh. “They have a different mentality. That worked out nicely.”
“It’s always fun when practical solutions necessitate creativity – not to mention it always looks cool!” said Central Florida student J.T. Madigan.
The students saw their 3D printed test models launched in the SubTec-7 payload mission, on a Black Brant IX sounding rocket measuring 56 feet with the payload weighing 1,200 pounds.
These particular concepts also just happened to win first place in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Region I Student Paper Conference for the Undergraduate Team category in April. Discuss in the Mars Rover forum at 3DPB.com. [Source: NASA]
“Very few students get the opportunity to design something, put it on a NASA rocket and fly it,” said Dr. Samareh.
“There are things we learned from them,” he said, “and there are things they learned from us.”