Two Seattle-area students are finalists in NASA design competition for lunar robots to excavate Earth

Project Stardust by Ke “Max” Jiang, left, and Terebro, by Mason Lysaght. (Lunabotics images)

Dig this — two Seattle-area students were semifinalists in a NASA national competition in which kids in grades K-12 were tasked with designing a robot that could scoop up and transport lunar soil.

The winners of the Lunabotics Junior Contest were named at the end of March, and among the 20 kids in the final pack were Ke “Max” Jiang of Bellevue, Wash., and Mason Lysaght of Snohomish. The competition attracted approximately 2,300 design entries.

The participants were asked to draw a drawing of their robot’s design, either as an original artwork, 3D model, diagram or photo of a prototype. A written summary of the machine’s design was also required.

NASA based the competition on its ambition to return to the moon and future needs related to digging and moving lunar soil, or regolith, from one area of ​​the moon’s south pole to a container near a planned Artemis – moon base. The planned robots – no larger than 3.5 feet x 2 feet x 2 feet – were supposed to allay concerns, including how the robots would shovel and dig regolith; how much waste would be transported per trip; and how the machines would deal with moon dust sticking to everything.

Lunar regolith will be used for multiple purposes, according to NASA, such as building a lunar base using lunar concrete; harvesting water that can also be used for rocket fuel; and extracting possible metals or minerals.

We spoke to Max and Mason to learn more about their designs, their inspiration, view of technology and future ambitions. Comments edited for length and clarity.

Ke ‘Max’ Jiang – Project Stardust

Ke “Max” Jiang. (Photo courtesy of Ke Jiang)

GeekWire: How old are you and where do you go to school?

Max: I’m 17 years old. I am a junior at Interlake High School in Bellevue. It is a great school that offers a rigorous International Baccalaureate program, and I am fortunate to have many teachers who introduced me to advanced subjects in physics, chemistry, design technology and economics of designing things.

GW: How long have you been interested in robotics?

Max: When I was little I loved looking at and playing with things that could autonomously drive, fly or operate at the touch of a button. As early as 3 years old I would sit for hours putting toy rails in different designs, and at 8 years old I would put together big Lego sets and use all the shapes available to design my own planes and boats, even adding robot motors and make them move.

My high school had a workshop where I could use real construction tools for the first time. I was able to design and program small cars and drones, leading me and my team to take second place in the Museum of Flight’s annual Space Elevator Challenge. During this time I also started using automated design software and simulation games like Kerbal Space Program.

In high school, I was able to participate in John Hopkins University’s Engineering Innovation (EI) program in 10th grade and was exposed to rigorous design processes from idea to implementation. It was a lot of fun working in a completely remote team where everyone did their best to build the most sturdy “Golden Gate” bridge using spaghetti, wax paper and glue!

More details about Project Stardust. (Lunabotics image)

GW: How did you come up with your Lunabotics idea?

Max: I started by defining my primary objective – an important design principle so that I know what to maximize and where to make the necessary trade-offs. This challenge was called to excavate, transport and unload lunar regolite most efficiently. In my opinion, traveling back and forth through unfamiliar terrain was a major risk factor, so my goal was to maximize the payload – and thus size – of the rover, which in turn would reduce the number of trips and the risk of failed trips. . I also learned the practical lesson that any good design must consider specific circumstances under which the design is executed. In this challenge, operating on the moon means navigating uneven terrain in permanent darkness, encountering lunar dust, and ongoing unmanned operations. Finally, reliability is the keyword. So I decided to integrate proven technologies to make the rover work optimally.

With that in mind, I set out to design my rover’s basic structure, the Stardust – a large regolith container atop a frame supported by a set of six wheels. For easy automation, the regolith container can flip and eject the regolith quickly, just like a dump truck. Similarly, existing technology such as the Rocker-Bogie suspension system was used on Stardust’s undercarriage to allow it to travel over uneven terrain with ease, and an excavator with a modern industrial bucket wheel design was added for a durable collection of regoliths. Following the basic structure, I added a power source (two radioisotope thermoelectric generators) to provide continuous power during the fourteen-day lunar night, sets of batteries, communications equipment, and a navigation camera. Finally, I added additional details to show vital subsystems, such as electrode circuits to repel lunar dust.

GW: What technology are you most excited about right now?

Max: I’m most excited about the development of reusable rockets and spaceplanes, as well as related technologies like new propellants, combined cycle spaceplane engines and the like. Making spaceplanes reusable would significantly reduce costs, and reliable launch and return will attract more interest and investment. I follow updates from SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Reaction Engines Limited and CASIC closely at every turn. I believe that one day ordinary people like you and me will be able to afford a seat in a spacecraft and enjoy the view of Earth from above.

GW: What is your dream job?

Max: My dream job is to become an aerospace engineer, preferably specializing in propulsion. I would be proud to contribute to the advancement of space exploration, making it accessible to any child who dreams of flying to go faster and further.

Mason Lysaght – Terebro (drill in Latin)

A sketch of the Terebro moon robot by Mason Lysaght. (Lunabotics image)

GeekWire: How old are you and where do you go to school?

Mason: I’m 14 years old. I go to Valley View Middle School in Snohomish.

GW: How long have you been interested in robotics?

Mason Lysaght. (Photo courtesy of Mason Lysaght)

Mason: I’ve always been curious about how things work, be it robotics, natural phenomena, chemistry, etc. Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to get subscriptions to robotics and engineering kits so I could better explore my interest in these areas. The Lunabotics Junior Challenge was a great way to channel my creativity and scientific interest, and I’m glad I had the chance to participate.

GW: How did you come up with your Lunabotics idea?

Mason: I got a lot of inspiration from successful NASA rovers like Perseverance. I modified the designs of these rovers and recreated them to better meet the demands of the challenge of efficiently excavating and transporting lunar regolith. I then added more features, such as the many power sources (an MMRTG, a pack of lithium-ion batteries and solar panels equipped with brushes), a shovel and extra wheels in the front to prop up the regolith.

GW: What technology are you most excited about right now?

Mason: There are many different kinds of technologies that I’m interested in! The possibilities with AI and virtual reality are intriguing (and a little scary). Of course, I’m excited about technology like Perseverance or the James Webb telescope, because they could really advance our efforts in advancing space exploration.

GW: What is your dream job?

Mason: Since I’m still in high school and not quite sure what my future holds, I’d say I have some dream fields rather than a specific job. I would of course be interested in careers related to robotics or engineering, and I like the idea of ​​pursuing aerospace technology. Frankly, working for NASA would be a dream for me.

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