If square Mars rover Opportunity could spark years of anthropomorphization Love And benevolence, then earthlings will probably want to send a robot in the form of a snake to the moon. The brainchild of Northeastern University students, this robot is designed to zigzag through difficult terrain, measure the water level in a crater pit, and bite its tail to transform itself into a spinning ouroboros falling off a moon cliff.
annual Challenge big idea each year presents a new request related to an engineering problem that the agency needs to solve. In the fall of 2021, students from universities in the United States began developing a robot that could survive extreme lunar conditions and send data back to Earth. The winning team, made up of students from the Northeast Space Exploration and Exploration Club, took home the top prize in November and now hopes to turn their winning design into an advanced prototype that can actually be sent to the moon.
Using $180,000 NASA funds, the students focused on developing a robot that could navigate Shackleton Crater, a 13-mile-wide basin near the moon’s south pole where NASA confirmed the presence of water ice in 2018. There is a lot of water on Earth, but it is high. – a valuable commodity outside our atmosphere. People need water to survive, but it’s very heavy, and it’s prohibitively expensive to carry it 240,000 miles from home. As such, local ice-shaped water will be a huge boon to NASA’s Artemis mission as it seeks to establish a lunar base.
However, before the agency can rely on this ice for crewed missions, it needs to confirm how much ice is in different regions of the lunar surface and what its chemical composition is. But there are a few problems with getting data from a 2-mile-deep crater. First, the floor is in constant shade, which means that the temperature fluctuates hundreds of degrees below zero. Second, the slope angle from edge to floor is 30.5 degrees, steeper than Mount Everest. Three: The moon is sandy. Any robot attempting to cross this terrain will have to survive the chilling temperatures, steep descent, and sandy environment.
The students looked at jumping, roaming, and roaming robots, like the wheeled rovers already on Mars. But rolling robots would sink into the regolith and be unable to navigate safely over terrain as steep as the edge of Shackleton. Robots with legs also sink and are less stable in sandy environments. It would be difficult for jumping robots to take off and land without getting damaged or stuck. “We looked at this whole set of different robot designs and thought, can we combine different movements in some way?” recalls Yash Bhora, a physicist who helped the team build the software.
Bhora and his teammates thought of a tumbling robot that could use the moon’s partial gravity to move down the crater more efficiently. But as soon as it appears on the floor, it will need a different type of functionality. “An acrobatic robot on its own cannot manipulate a large scientific instrument or maneuver as accurately as a walking robot,” says Matthew Schroeter, team leader who graduated from Northeastern in 2022 and now works for Honeybee Robotics.