A team of university students led by engineer Prof. Mool C. Gupta received awards for best technical poster and best technical demonstration for their innovative project at NASA's 2020 Big Idea Challenge. The project, titled Laser Radiation of Energy for Exploring the Moon, focused on powering devices in dark areas of the Moon that do not receive sunlight by using lasers to transmit energy to rovers. During the design process, the team had to overcome the difficulties associated with working on their project given the COVID-19 restrictions.
The Big Idea Challenge is a competition that gives undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to design, test, and build solutions to this year's challenge, and to support future NASA missions through competitive projects. In 2020 NASA tried to address a challenge with its Artemis program that they must face.
NASA's Artemis program aims to bring people back to the moon by 2024. Robot precursor missions are conducted to reduce engineering and programmatic risks to humans and to explore regions of the moon of interest to human explorers with rovers. Areas of great interest are the permanently shadowed regions near the lunar polar regions that have been dark for billions of years. The problem is getting power for the rovers, which normally use solar panels.
“There's a lot of sunshine on top of the craters,” said Gupta. “We suggested using the sunlight on top of the craters, converting the sunlight into electricity and using it to operate a laser. This laser light can be beamed into the permanently shaded areas and also tracked to power a moving object such as a rover. ”
Gupta, as director of the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Lasers and Plasma for Advanced Manufacturing, was uniquely prepared for this problem.
After learning the focus of the challenge, Gupta reached out to fourth-year engineering student Jacob St. Martin who had previously conducted research in Gupta's laboratory. St. Martin was interested in the project and they started putting together an interdisciplinary team.
“The nature of our project, unlike some other projects in competition, is that it was a very interdisciplinary project,” said St. Martin. “There were a lot of electrical components, programming components, mechanical design, lasers and optics. A lot of different systems that needed to be brought together.”
The student team consisted of engineering students George Wilkes, engineering students Rex Serpe and Julia Rudy in their third year, engineering students Keerthi Radhakrishnan in their fourth year, and engineering students Edward Lee and David Chen in their second year.
St. Martin was the head of the student team and head of mechanical design. Wilkes was the team leader for lasers, optics and photovoltaics. Serpe was the team leader for laser tracking and embedded systems. Rudy was the head of the rover and gimbal tracking team. Radhakrishnan was the team leader for charging systems. Lee and Chen were the co-heads of the data display and thermal control team.
Gupta also recruited Paul Jaffe – an electronics engineer in the US Naval Research Laboratory's spacecraft technology division who worked on power transmission for defense applications – as an outside consultant to help answer high-level questions.
“[We] flesh[ed] We then put together a proposal based on BELLE's idea and submitted it at the beginning of January last year, ”said St. Martin. “It wasn't until mid-February that we were told that we had been selected.”
The team received a $ 123,000 scholarship and started work in March, but then a pandemic erupted.
“Everything was closed as soon as we went into spring break,” said Rudy. We had to create this tracking system, but weren't allowed to go into the laboratory. ”
Wilkes was the only member of the team allowed into the lab since he was a graduate student. However, the interdisciplinary nature of the project proved to be an advantage for the team in overcoming this access problem.
“[It was] lots of different systems that needed to be brought together, ”he said. “Because of all these different systems, we were able to work on it in parts from people's homes,” said St. Martin.
Wilkes explained that the team would have to coordinate through virtual meetings.
“Most of what we developed was theorized in meetings and tested with different group members at home using cheaper parts,” said Wilkes.
The team went through several design iterations using inexpensive equipment and lower power lasers before the members raced up to their final design.
Rudy, who was responsible for working on the gimbal, the component that controls the horizontal and vertical movement of BELLE, had to find creative solutions to reproduce the presence in the laboratory. The gimbal had to be able to withstand a 100 watt laser.
“I was unable to use lab data on the gimbal,” said Rudy. “I had to estimate what kind of readings I could expect from the laser on the photovoltaic cell and how the gimbal should move in response.” do this at home with a flashlight and photo diodes. “
Wilkes was surprised at how many ideas worked right off the bat.
“In my experience, this is pretty rare in research,” said Wilkes. Our tracking demo, in which we followed a ping pong ball with retroreflective tape, worked very well and was even able to track the ball as it was thrown up and down. We were able to squeeze a large amount of energy out of a photovoltaic system, which is smaller than a sticky note, by beaming laser power. “
Rudy noticed how exciting the project is because of the innovative tracking algorithm.
“There has been power beaming before, but there has never been power beaming that was mobile,” said Rudy.
Although the team was able to come up with a solution to the lack of access to the laboratory, their process was still hampered by the pandemic. According to Rudy, they were only allowed to combine the sub-components of their project again in the laboratory in September.
“”[W]We performed both the laser radiation and the optical track. These things were previously done individually but never integrated together, “said St. Martin. He explained that the inability to put them together until a later date hampered their process.” It didn't give us that much time to debug and iterate over to work out the kinks in the system, “said St. Martin.
Gupta praised the team for their dedication – the long hours the team spent working on their poster and coordinating the presentation paid off.
“We worked hard, even at night,” said Gupta. “Nine o'clock, ten o'clock in the evening with a student meeting to go over the paper we had to take to NASA.”
In January of this year, the team received awards for the best technical poster and the best technical demonstration. The team was informed of their awards during a Zoom call for awards with the other teams. Michigan Technological University won the top award of the challenge. Gupta thanked the students for their hard work and NASA for giving students the opportunity to think outside the box and compete at the national level.