MTU Crew Goes BIG for NASA’s Lunar Projects

moon over Fisher Hall
moon over Fisher Hall
The moon rises over Fisher Hall.

Breakthrough, innovative, game-changing — the NASA BIG Idea Challenge funds eight university teams to work on lunar payloads and study the Moon’s darkest reaches.

A student team led by graduate student Marcello Guadagno and guided by Paul van Susante, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Michigan Technological University, wants to take their rover technology to the “dark side”. Not for evil — the polar craters where the moon holds the closest source of extraterrestrial water also happen to be permanently shadowed. Getting to the frozen deposits and studying those polar craters are two aspects of NASA’s Artemis program, which is aiming for a crewed moon landing in 2024. 

NASA’s BIG Idea Challenge

The BIG Idea Challenge selected teams to develop systems to research and navigate permanently shadowed regions that include data collection, wireless power generation, autonomous mobility and sticking a lunar landing. Michigan Tech’s team has been awarded $162,637 alongside seven other groups.

man in haz mat suit standing on gray dust
Paul van Susante is working with a team of students to simulate conditions for rover exploration on the moon.

“It’s an exciting time for NASA and students across the country,” said Drew Hope, Game Changing Development program manager at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. “Thanks to our partnership with the Office of STEM Engagement, this is the most money NASA has awarded in a student challenge directly connected to Artemis. I look forward to seeing the inventive designs come to life as well as how they can advance our exploration capabilities in permanently shadowed craters on the Moon.”

T-REX to the Moon

The Michigan Tech team’s project is called T-REX, short for the Tethered permanently-shadowed Region EXplorer. The system is a rover that lays down lightweight, superconducting cable connected to a lander. Once the rover reaches its final spot after traversing rocky crater terrain into the permanently shadowed regions, the rover can serve as a recharging hub and communication relay for other robots, providing continuous power without direct sunlight.

The student team will build the rover, adding features like docking stations for charging other robots and data relay. The team will work in van Susante’s Planetary Surface Technology Development Lab (PSTDL) where they will have access to a dusty thermal vacuum chamber: a vacuum-sealed room partially filled with moon dust simulant that can be cooled to -196 degrees Celsius and heated to 200 degrees Celsius to imitate the lunar surface conditions. Within this lunar simulant sandbox, T-REX will be assessed for how it gets around obstacles and steep crater-like slopes while deploying its cable.

By the end of testing, T-REX will be ready for reconstruction with flight hardware to prepare for selection for a possible moon landing on future NASA commercial lunar payload services (CLPS) missions (which also sounds like a great Jurassic Park sequel).

diagram of the T-REX rover, step one rover disengages, step two rover deploys cable, step three rover descends into a shadowed crater
 The rover lands on the surface, perhaps using a robotic arm, and can then descend into permanently shadowed regions towing a superconducting cable. 

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.