Thursday, August 21, 2008

Raleigh's Team Stellar works toward prize

North Carolina State University Technician Online
August 21

N.C. State is traveling to the moon.

Or, rather, its designs are.

Graduate and undergraduate students and two professors are working with Team Stellar, a team of electrical, computer and aerospace engineers, to produce a rover that will land on the moon.

They are doing so through the Google Lunar X Prize, which is awarding $30 million to the winning team, of which there are 14.

The rover must land on the moon, travel 500 meters, and send high-definition video, a text message and an e-mail back to Earth.

There's only one snag in the project: funding.

Team Stellar still needs to raise $200,000 -- counting money, sponsorship and in-kind donations -- to keep the project going, according to Dick Dell, a member of the team and executive director of the Advanced Vehicle Research Center. The AVRC also worked on the self-navigating DARPA vehicle.

"The biggest challenge to the challenge is bringing the funding," Dell said, adding that outside resources must cover the cost of the project, which he predicted to lie in the $50 to $100 million range. "We have the technology, and we have the people there at N.C. State that can do it."

The rules
The high-definition video must stream everything from the rover's landing on the moon to its travel, according to Gordon Jeans, a member of Team Stellar and a senior in computer engineering.

According to Google's rules for the X-Prize challenge, the rover must complete a set of tasks, two of which include sending an e-mail and text message to Earth from the moon.

"That's kind of tongue-in-cheek for me," Jeans said, adding that Google will be the first to send such information back from the moon.

But before they even get to the moon, the team has got some work to do.

The team
The main team is composed of seven men, each of whom has a distinct role in ensuring that each aspect of the rover -- from what wheels to use to what technology will help transmit a text message -- is completed in time for the launch.

Andre Mazzoleni, a professor of engineering who works with the rover's engineering and design aspects, joined Team Stellar last spring.

Dell, he said, had found him through the work he was doing with the N.C. Space Grant. Since Mazzoleni was involved with NASA projects and rover design, he was a prime candidate for the position.

The team then looked toward Jeans.

"They wanted students who knew other students to get together people to work on the project," he said. "I didn't actually know about it until they approached me that summer."

Jeans, who worked with tanks during a 10-year stint in the army, said he knows about making vehicles that can stand conditions of extreme cold, heat and darkness -- conditions that the moon cycles through during every rotation.

Jeans also worked with Lego robotics, and Dell happened to be sitting through Jeans' presentation on that subject.

When the two met after the presentation, "one conversation led to another and we found out that we were both in love with space."

It's this knowledge about computers and engineering -- an education he got through both classes and experience with the army -- as well as a background in outer space exploration that he adds to the team.

Jeans submitted one of the initial designs for the rover. It was a simple design, he said, but would be able to navigate the surface of the moon. Its materials, he said, have to be chosen carefully.

"You have to use materials that can survive in those conditions," he said. "For example, silicone works great in heat but shatters in the cold. You have to have it operate on solar power and batteries, because batteries don't work well in the cold and you have a fixed amount of power."

Although Team Stellar is based primarily in Raleigh and on campus, there are people across the eastern states who are helping to move the project along.

The rover
Jeans' designs are not the only ones that have been submitted. Graduate students have been working over the summer to complete a functional design for the rover.

Undergraduates, many of whom have not been working on the project during the summer, will start their design this fall.

The team is focusing on the structural aspects.

"We're looking at multiple designs right now, and then we'll select the one that will end up working the best," Mazzoleni said. "The one the graduate students are working on is a little bit more mature. They've already focused in on a particular design."

This design is one in which the wheels can move independently, which, he said, should help it climb over rocks and maneuver around obstacles.

The students, including Jeans, will design and build several prototypes. Graduate students will build their prototype this semester and start testing it. Undergraduate students will work through next semester.

But the final product, which will use better, more durable and more costly material, won't be ready until the end of the upcoming spring semester. The working design must stand extreme heat and cold.

"It's a team effort," Mazzoleni said. "The ultimate rover might act be a combination of what Gordon's working on and what the graduate students are working on and what the undergraduate students are working on. We're going to learn from each of the prototypes and, from that, decide what goes in to the final version.

It's not like there's a winner."

The challenge
So the team has the resources and the support -- at a public meeting on Centennial campus Monday night, more than 200 people showed up to learn about and volunteer for the project.

At this point, it's the funding that is proving difficult to come by.

As per Google's rules for the X prize, only 10 percent of the team's funding can come from public funds. This rule, Jeans said, will ensure that the teams cut excess spending and only produce what is necessary to send a rover to the moon. Jeans also said it would encourage private companies to sponsor space travel to the moon, which he said will be the "next Antarctica," a place where researchers from many countries will do research and tests. No single entity will have ownership over it.

And although the team has no plans of stopping mid-project, it still must find funding from somewhere -- $200,000 of it. This funding can come in the form of donations, both monetary and of equipment like computers, and private sponsorship.

"All the teams are facing the same challenges," Dell said. "Only one of two of the teams have major funding. The rest of us haven't found a major sponsor yet."

Corporate sponsorship will make going to the moon easier, more cost efficient and more likely. Google's lists this as one of its goals, according to the Lunar X Prize Web site. A quicker and less costly ride to space will push companies to take an interest in space and the potentials it has for aiding some of Earth's energy crises.

The future
This project is not only a place to "put N.C. State on the map," as Jeans said, but also a place for practical application of in-class lectures.

"This is a perfect project to teach the process of engineering design because, in engineering design, you end up using a combination of learning all the scientific and engineering principles along with trying to use what you've learned in the classroom to create something new," Mazzoleni said.

"This is one more application of something in the department that students were very interested in and invested with."