AE teams sweep top three places in AIAA 2016 undergraduate team space design competition
Aerospace Engineering at Illinois teams again this year swept the top three places in the annual Undergraduate Team Space Design Competition of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).
AE teams have takent first place in the competition six years in a row. Over the past 10 years, the teams have earned either first, second, or third 18 times, and have swept the top three places three times, including the 2016 competition.
In the latest challenge, AE teams ALMA (A Low-Cost Mission to an Asteroid), LoCATE (Low-Cost Asteroid Topographical Explorer), and TRIDENT (Triple Reconnaissance Impactors for Development and Evaluation of Near-Earth asteroid Technologies) took first, second and third places, respectively. This year’s space design challenge was to develop a robotic precursor mission to an asteroid to aid NASA’s future deep-space exploration plans, currently centered around the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The robotic segment of ARM will identify and capture a small near-Earth asteroid (NEA), or a multi-ton boulder from the surface of a larger NEA, and transport it to a stable orbit around the moon. The human segment of ARM will send astronauts to explore the NEA in lunar orbit in the 2020s. The robotic precursor design problem was particularly challenging because each team had to develop a complete mission for no more than $100 million, including launch costs.
“The teams had to pick the asteroid and develop the mission goals from scratch: that was the hardest part,” said AE Assistant Prof. Zach Putnam, who advised the teams and taught the Spring 2016 senior space design course. “If you chose something easier, there was less risk, but you have to have the right amount of risk to get the right amount of information. That’s the core of engineering – picking the sweet spot.”
The science missions developed by the student teams “were compelling, but challenging, missions, especially at $100 million,” Putnam continued. “They would have been challenging at $300 million.”
First-place Winner: ALMA
- Kyle Weiskircher – Team Lead
- Michael Busch
- Samyak Shah
- Andrew Slowik
- Jacob Denton
- Matthew Crisman
- Andrew Holm
A Low-cost Mission to an Asteroid (ALMA) was planned as an 11-month mission in which a 385 kilogram satellite (wet mass at launch) would rendezvous with Asteroid 2008 EV5. The satellite was designed to perform a thorough characterization of 2008 EV5 to determine its suitability as a candidate for further exploration and lower the risk of a human exploration mission.
The competition had three primary constraints. Simple proven technologies and a $100 million budget meant that the team needed to use as much as possible commercial off-the-shelf parts with high technology readiness ratings. Team ALMA could not afford to develop and extensively test parts with low flight heritage, because that would have increased costs as well as development and mission risks. The team’s design also had to fit within the definition of a small satellite, effectively meaning ALMA could not weigh more than 500 kilograms. The ALMA team had to analyze each design and cost tradeoff to design the optimal mission given each constraint.
Space mission design is not an idealistic process. The design choices of each team member trickled down to impact everyone. Sacrifices in each subsystem had to be made in order to not jeopardize the feasibility of the whole mission.
Second-place Winner: LoCATE
- Matt Ciasto- team lead
- Joseph Lasser
- Caite (McCarthy) Beck
- Joseph Mueller
- Jeffery Pekosh
- Seth Zelman
LoCATE’s plan was to explore near earth asteroid 2000 SG344 with the primary objective of gathering information on the asteroid’s physical properties and characteristics. Since so little is known about these NEAs, it would be too dangerous to send humans into such an unknown environment. This leads to the need for a robotic precursor mission that will demonstrate the scalable template of a proven technology and create a foundation for future human exploration missions. LoCATE’s primary payload would be a high resolution camera used to create a 3D map of the asteroid in order to identify landing zones as well as hazardous areas of the asteroid. In addition, several other instruments onboard would measure various properties of the asteroid in order to gain information that would better prepare a human exploration mission.
The biggest challenge was the extremely tight cost constraint. Added to the difficulty of launching a full size satellite into space were challenges of rendezvousing with a NEA and gathering useful information while identifying cost-effective solutions to fit the budget and accomplish the mission. In addition to that, every team member held multiple roles with diverse responsibilities, and all needed to perform jobs in which they had little experience. Throughout the project development, team members were given the task of learning something new and then applying that new skill to design a space mission from the ground up, which was a very rewarding yet very demanding process.
Designing a space mission from the ground up is much less straightforward than the kind of problems students are used to solving. Problems can become complex very quickly, and the team needed to decide very quickly when work on a particular problem had gone far enough, or at what point the design fit specific applications. Spending too much time on one thing could cause delays with the rest of the work. Ultimately, defining aspects to the level of detail the team envisioned proved difficult, and sometimes the team had to accept more vague, “hand-wavy” solutions and move on. The result ended up being very effective, since the design process is structured to return to problems, iterate solutions, and see how changes affect other systems.
Third-place Winner: TRIDENT
- Sam Forgerson – Team Lead
- Mihir Patel
- Jiby Mamen
- Scott Neuhoff
- Sabeeh Butt
- William Kazakis
The concept aimed to reduce the risk of future asteroid missions by providing an understanding of the mechanical and morphological properties of the surface of the asteroid 2008 EV5. The information would help determine expectations when either a spacecraft or human comes into contact with an asteroid. With information gathered via a high-resolution camera, a thermal imaging spectrometer, and three deployable penetrators on-board the TRIDENT spacecraft, mission development and design, along with spacecraft design and construction, would take place over a three-year period in time for launch on-board a Minotaur I rocket from Cape Canaveral in August 2019. All mission aspects would be completed for under $100 million dollars.
Meeting the cost requirements of the mission proved to be a major challenge. The team was able to navigate this by doing extensive research on previously developed technologies and employing flight proven off-the-shelf hardware in our mission design. The team also worked to meet the cost requirement by developing the simplest possible methods for collecting the desired data, from simple and proven technologies to minimal spacecraft maneuvers during the mission.”
Planners can never include too much margin in their design process. The team discovered that, from scheduling times for meetings to generating the cost of the mission, the margin quickly was eaten up by the design process. This was particularly apparent when the team worked many late nights leading up to deadlines. Throughout the course of the semester the team improved on its margin setting and were able to complete a mission on time and under budget.