Space exploration is an activity that has to deal with harsh environments that pose challenges touching a number of fields. As such, engaging in the conceptual design of, say, a lunar base, can be a good way to stimulate problem-solving for many different disciplines. At Politecnico di Torino, the ASTRA Student Team aims to do just that.
Team ASTRA was founded in 2022 at Politecnico di Torino to bring together students from different courses. Their main goal is to design a self-sustaining lunar base so that people from different academic backgrounds can employ their skills on a complex project.
Interest in spaceflight is constantly growing, and building colonies on other celestial bodies looks more and more like a possibility rather than just a dream. It is thus natural that university students are eager to start getting their hands on some kind of related project.
The engineering challenges behind building a self-sustaining lunar base are immense. A structure of such dimensions and complexity will probably have to be assembled in harsh conditions. This adds on top of the already arduous task of designing all the systems needed to support human life and making them reliably work together. While we often focus on overcoming the limitations of propulsions or maybe radiation shielding too little thought is given to the crucially important aspect of life support systems.
Conceiving the design of a lunar base is going to require input from a number of different fields. Accounting for the uneven lunar terrain, the various gravitational fields, the rough radiation environment, and the lack of preexisting infrastructure are going to pose challenges that pertain to engineering, geology, space science, chemistry, and more.
A student team can be a valuable tool to bring together scholars from all these backgrounds so that they can cooperate and share ideas. This cooperation will be quite valuable, as it will allow everyone to enlarge their areas of expertise.
Moreover, choosing a lunar base will produce some versatile results. The lessons learned can be applied not only to other planets but also to hostile environments on Earth, like deserts or the depths of the sea. Thus, by working on this project the participants will acquire precious experience even if they choose to work in other fields.
A lunar base will be made of many different subsystems working in unison. Team ASTRA has decided to focus on each of them one at a time. In particular, the team’s first project is centered around the design of a spherical rover, dubbed Scout.
The goal of the Scout rover is to transport loads, a crucial task for both assembly and maintenance. The rover will not do this alone, on the contrary, many rovers will cooperate to lift payloads of any size. More rovers can be used at once, as required by the job.
The layout chosen for the rover is spherical, with each hemisphere being able to rotate independently. This allows for omnidirectional movement and eliminates the risk of overturning. A small robotic arm is going to stick out of the gap between the two halves. It will be used to hoist small loads or to carry big ones.
The team envisions the possibility of modifying the rover to carry out different tasks, such as digging. Modifications to the robotic arm will enable the reconfiguration of the rover. This makes Scout not just a transport rover, but a versatile and multifunctional platform.
For this academic year, the team has set two goals. The first one is to build a prototype, for which a CAD model already exists. It is not final, however, and it will be refined using analysis models and numerical simulations in the first months. After that, the control software will be tested by carrying out maneuvers. The code will have to deal with stability control, which will not be trivial given the spherical shape of the rover.
While getting a good design out is important, the experience in team ASTRA is also about the design process. One of the advantages a student team has is that it provides valuable experience in teamwork. As such, dividing the design work is a key aspect of the project.
Team ASTRA is divided into five sections, supervised by the team leader Thomas Binetti and Prof. Stefano Mauro. PROT, Prototyping, will refine the CAD project and will physically build the outer structure. MT, Mechatronics, will develop the sensors, electronics, and software needed to control the rover. SIM, dynamic simulation, will develop a model of the rover to make better design decisions. COM, Communication, is tasked with promoting the project both inside the Politecnico and outside, and with managing social network accounts.
The integration of each component with the others will be guaranteed by SA, Systemic Analysis. The latter section is more general in scope, while the first four are dedicated to the current project.
The construction of the first prototype of the Scout rover is currently underway. The electronics are being tested using Arduino boards, and some parts of the outer spherical shell have already been 3D printed. Meanwhile, CAD models for the arm are being refined and analyses are being conducted.
The prototype should be finished by late 2023 or January 2024. Afterward, the team will test the rover, attempting to conduct maneuvers and various activities. Let’s wish them the best of luck.