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Students Design Tool to Address Current NASA Problem

This article appeared in a June 2016 issue of the student newsletter.

Space, the final frontier. A place with no firm boundaries and limitless opportunities. A venue for asteroids, cosmic rays and dark energy to mingle. For those who dare to dream big, space is absolutely divine. 

Much of our experience with space, however, happens here on Earth. 

We look up at the constellations on a clear summer night, pondering why Orion’s Belt always feels so tricky to find. Or maybe, if we’re lucky, we peer through a high-end telescope, actually getting a close-up look at that huge cloud of dust and gas almost six light-years across. Some of us even experience space through YouTube documentaries or visits to the John F. Kennedy Space Center. 

All of this was not enough, however, for five students at North Lake College. No, they dreamed of going further. 

Asteria’s Explorers 

Asteria’s Explorers,” as they call themselves, are a diverse group of students living and studying in Dallas. 

Team members include Abigail Huang (Computer Science), Dragana Repaja (Business), Mariah Saratan (Nursing), Anh Quoc Tran (Mechanical Engineering) and Steven Tran (Biochemistry).

Together, the team has pulled many all-nighters this year, all with one common goal: to design a new tool that will help NASA move an asteroid.

“Basically NASA is planning to go out and capture an asteroid and move it to the moon’s orbit,” explains Team Leader Anh Tran. “Our tool is going to help transport the astronaut out of NASA’s space shuttle and onto the Asteroid Redirect Vehicle.”

The Big Why

Before we dive any further into this awesome team of students and their innovative tool, you may be wondering why.

Why is NASA trying to find ways to move asteroids in the first place?

“There are a couple of reasons,” answers Tran. “NASA wants to be able to capture asteroids to collect samples. They want to find out what the rock is composed of – how much oxygen, how much nitrogen and so on. Also, if any harmful asteroids were coming toward earth, NASA actually can now move them out of the way.”

Tran’s tool isn’t all about research and stopping asteroids from falling to earth, Armageddon-style, however. He hopes the tool will open doors for other space explorers to go further.

“If this mission is successful we can all ask ourselves, ‘What else can we send out there? What else do we want to collect?’ Especially with the commercial industry and the private sector. Right now NASA leads the path for space exploration, but missions like these open up familiarity for the private sector and commercialized space travel, which is becoming a thing, like with Space X or Orbital. The further NASA goes, the further these companies can go because they are following NASA.” 

NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission

So, back to Asteria’s Explorers at North Lake College: How did the group get involved in this NASA mission to begin with?

It all began when Tran signed up, years ago, with the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars Program. He was accepted into the program alongside 46 other students from Dallas Community Colleges. Together the Aerospace Scholars learned about NASA internships, scholarships, fellowships and other educational programs offered at Houston’s Johnson Space Center and other NASA facilities. 

After the program, Tran continued to receive email newsletters informing him about new educational opportunities. NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission caught his eye.

“Once a year, NASA opens up design challenges to college students nationwide,” says Tran, referring to NASA's Micro-g NEXT program. “How the design challenge works is you have to form a team, send in a 15-16 page proposal, and then — if they approve you — you get the green light to begin building your prototype.”

Forming a Team

For Tran, that first step of forming a team was the simplest step. He turned to close, personal friends whom he knew were also talented and capable. Friends like Steven Tran (no relation), whom he’d known since high school. The two had worked together on numerous science projects, including building missiles that traveled faster than the speed of sound.

 “Steven gave me advice on what materials to use when building our tool," says Tran. "As a bio-chem major, he knows a lot about how materials behave. Much of our tool is made out of aircraft-grade materials.”

Watch the team video on YouTube.

Once the team was complete, with five members total, they began writing their proposal. They would explain in detail how their new tool would help move the asteroid from NASA’s space shuttle (the Orion) onto the Asteroid Redirect Vehicle. 

“When they open the hatch on the shuttle, there is no safe way to get ‘over’ the asteroid,” explains Tran. “So we are creating a docking system to help transport the astronaut out of the Orion shuttle.”

This particular challenge is referred to by NASA as the Gap Spanner Boom Design Challenge. Other design challenges students could choose from include building anchors (to hold astronauts down the asteroid) and designing “rock chippers” (to collect samples off the asteroid), to name a few.

Waiting for a Green Light 

While hundreds of college teams submitted design proposals to NASA, only 24 teams were chosen to move forward. These teams represented students from top schools nationwide: Columbia, Purdue, Cornell … and North Lake College.

“We are one of two community colleges selected out of 24 schools in the nation,” says Tran. “And these other schools are big schools with big budgets. They have state-of-the-art facilities and lots of resources.”

Tran says the team’s greatest challenge has been resources. The team turned to North Lake College’s network partners for support — partners like UTA, which allowed the team to use the university machine shop. After all, you can’t exactly cut metal in your garage. It wouldn’t be precise enough for a project of this detail.

“It was definitely a struggle, but I don’t think of it as something that holds us back. I think it is something that makes us stand out,” explains Tran. 

Finding Community Support

In April, Tran received good news: The President’s Team at North Lake College had approved the team for a research grant. NLC’s Asteria’s Explorers could finally get to work. 

“North Lake didn’t want us to miss out on this opportunity because our team didn’t have the money or resources,” says Tran. “And this grant money has helped us tremendously. It meant we could finally send designs to the shop. We could not be more thankful.”

The team is also thankful for the NASA mentor they were assigned after receiving a green light on their design proposal. The team speaks with their mentor regularly. And he tells them this hands-on project is very close to real-world engineering. You propose, your build, you test, you fundraise. 

“Our final build should be done tomorrow, June 3,” says Tran.   

Heading to Houston

With their prototype tool in hand, Asteria’s Explorers will travel to Houston to present their tool to NASA engineers and NASA education coordinators. The tool will be tested in NASA Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) — a 6.2-million-gallon indoor pool used to train NASA astronauts for spacewalks. 

“This is the closest we can get to what space is like on earth,” explains Tran. “NASA’s pool has neutral buoyancy, so you are basically at zero gravity. We will be in a mission control room – watching and directing the professional divers in the pool on how to use the tool and what kind of tests we want them to apply.”

Since this is the first actual test, the student teams will find out what can be improved upon. There is no big prize or award based on each team’s results because ultimately, at the end of the day, the students’ main goal is to create a tool NASA can actually use.

“Being a part of this whole experience in itself is very rewarding,” says Tran. “The step to get our initial proposal approved was a real competition, but now that we are in design mode, it is more of a competition against ourselves.”

Next Steps

So what is next for Asteria’s Explorers? 

Well, Dragana Repaja is headed from North Lake College to SMU this fall; Mariah Saratan, Steven Tran and Abigail Huang plan to continue their education at UTA; and Anh Tran has already begun junior-level classes at UTD as a mechanical engineering major.

“I love science and promoting STEM,” says Tran happily. “I never was a straight-A student in bio or chem, but this project has given me a lot of confidence. It is not a theoretical tool we are designing. We are building an actual tool. I’ve really discovered myself as an engineer in this project, and this is what I can see myself doing in the real world. Solving a problem. Creating tools at cost. I want to work for NASA, Space X or Orbital and do these kinds of projects on a bigger scale.”