Image courtesy of Jeffrey Ly

A model depicts a prototype of PALLAS as it collects samples

March 22, 2016

Student Team Crafts Tools to Collect Rocks From Asteroids

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In the ongoing quest for space exploration, an asteroid base like Magneto’s Asteroid M from the X-Men universe seems like a distant dream. If NASA hopes to replicate the sophisticated structures built on the asteroid, it’s going to need tools. Plenty of them.  And there’s one team at Cornell that could certainly engineer a few.

Cornell University MicroGravity team, one of Cornell’s newest clubs, is collaborating with NASA to create a ‘Float Sample Grabber’ a device that the team hopes will help astronauts safely and securely retrieve rocks from asteroids. This is an example of  a scenario with microgravity — a condition where objects appear to be weightless.

Two graduate students, Jeffery Ly and Charlotte Kiang, first concieved of the initial proposal for the device after taking MAE 6950: Special Topics, a class that focussed o aerospace human factors principles. They roped in three undergraduates — head technical lead Eric Berg’19, public relations lead Priscilla Cancar’18 and prototyping lead Hannah Rudin’17 — and submitted their proposal to NASA in October.

The Micro-g Neural Buoyancy Experiment program is a competition that brings together teams of undergraduate students to prototype a tool that overcomes a small hurdle in space exploration. This year, teams partaking in the competition were asked to choose from one of five challenges facing NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Missions, that are set to begin in the 2020s and aim to explore large asteroids in the solar system.

CU-MicroG chose the first challenge: creating a tool, the ‘Float Sample Grabber’, that obtains loosely adhered rocks to an asteroid surface without cross-contamination. Over the all, the team worked on potential designs and CAD models for their device. In December, Cornell was one of 20 teams selected from a pool of 200 to create a prototype that will be tested by divers at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in June.

Ly explained what was unique about their device’s design.

“What’s really special about our design is that a lot of tools that have been developed [before this] are intended to be used on the Moon, with the influence of gravity, but in places with microgravity, it’s very hard to get samples with the same tools, so new ones need to be developed,”Ly said.

The device itself, codenamed PALLAS, consists of a handle with an actuator, which when pressed opens one of three empty scoop pods, into which rock samples can be collected.

An illustration shows PALLAS prototype when it is closed.

Image courtesy of Jeffrey Ly

An illustration shows PALLAS prototype when it is closed.

“PALLAS was designed to be as simplistic as possible and is a critical component of the astronaut’s toolkit,” Ly said.

Testing the device under the same conditions it will face when used in microgravity is tough. The closest testing environment is a 40-feet deep, olympic sized swimming pool at NBL. For now though, the team will be testing its prototype at their very own Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.

“Prototyping should be completed by spring break and we hope to start testing it at Helen Newman Hall on April 8,” Ly said.

Over the past few months, the team has also been participating in NASA webinars to better understand  specifications.

“Getting perspectives from astronauts, seeing what they need and tweaking it according to that is important,” Cancar said.

Satisfying the ergonomic and practical needs of astronauts is in line with the team’s core mission.

“Our methodology and the way we’ve approached the design is extremely human centric,” Ly said.

As the head technical advisor and a biological engineering student, Ly emphasizes the importance of creating devices that are simple and do not have a steep learning curve.

“This is not just brute force engineering,” Ly said. “This is building on a human factors base which a lot of people, especially in the industry, have come to realize is very important.”

One of NASA’s requirements is that teams spread awareness about space exploration within their community, and, in order to do so, the CU-MicroG team has been reaching out to elementary schools in the state.

“We’re working to get them to make small rockets and trying to show them just how close space is,” Cancar said.

Over the next year, this small team hopes to evolve into an engineering project team, taking on more recruits and another one of NASA’s challenges. Though driven by a technical core, Ly and Cancar underlined the importance of getting space enthusiasts, regardless of their major, on board, who, as Ly puts it, “can help mankind explore the heavens.“