University students from across the UK competed in the first UKSEDS Lunar Rover Competition at STFC’s RAL Space facility at Harwell Campus on Sunday 16th July.
Six student teams from across the UK reached the final stage of the Lunar Rover competition, which saw them design, construct and test a lunar rover to a set of engineering and science requirements over a period of 9 months. Each team passed a comprehensive review panel by space industry engineers from Thales Alenia Space in the UK, the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s RAL Space facility and Oxford Space Systems. Completion of the review unlocked funding to help teams build their rovers.
The challenge is based on a potential future robotic mission to a crater on the lunar south pole. As part of the mission, each lunar rover is required to drive through rough terrain to the bottom of the crater to collect ice samples. Like the real mission, the rovers have been designed to survive the rigorous shaking of a simulated rocket launch. As well as meeting these technical challenges, the teams successfully presented their designs to a range of space engineering experts at industry standard review panels earlier in the year.
Sunday’s trials in the ‘robotic trails area’ at STFC’s RAL Space facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire, simulated the real mission, with student’s rovers remotely operated via cameras in order to navigate rocks and steep slopes to successfully reach the crater site and return with a sample. Several lost wheels in their attempts and one rover was flipped onto its back when ascending a hill. Those who made it to the crater made use of a variety of different scoop designs to collect dry ice samples and attempt the drive home, some making it tantalisingly close to the end before foundering.
The rovers were also tested on a vibration table, which simulates the forces of a rocket launch. As the intensity of the vibrations increased, many teams saw nuts and bolts flying off their rovers and their chasses put under intense stress.
“After our rather disastrous first attempt, we rallied together and got everything sorted out for the vibration test. The rover did really well with the plastic chassis damping the vibrations and only a few screws came out or worked loose. After lunch we did lots of glueing and other bodging and managed to do a pretty solid second run, going almost twice the distance of the first one before our rover (christened Steve) broke and finally came to rest. Overall a very good day for the society really and we know what we can improve on next year.”
“Unfortunately we did not win, but much more importantly we learned a lot about systems engineering, electronics, and everything else that goes into such an endeavour.
Our hope is to document all of the progress we made and difficulties we encountered, then begin anew in the next academic year to develop our own lunar rover design unconstrained by competition requirements.“
"SurreyEARS is thrilled to have come first place in the inaugural UKSEDS lunar rover competition. It was great to see all our hard work pay off, and despite some technical issues on the competition day every team persevered and we enjoyed watching all the rovers undergo testing.
The development process has provided the team with an excellent insight into the technicalities of the space industry and had been a very rewarding learning opportunity. We look forward to continuing to develop what we've created in the future and are intending to use our rover as the basis of outreach activities for our society and the University of Surrey."
In the end the winners were the Electronics & Amateur Radio Society (EARS) at the University of Surrey who were awarded a custom-made first place prize by Thales Alenia Space in the UK. A special prize was also given to CranSEDS from Cranfield University for their excellent performance at the industry review panels.
“Opportunities like this are critical for building the practical skills that allow students to excel in the modern workplace.”, says James Telfer, Chair of UKSEDS, “In particular, the focus on the processes used in the space industry and engagement with our industrial partners gives a great insight into the challenges that face a new space engineer. Plus, building robots is fun!”
“The majority of engineering and science graduates are coming to us without a knowledge of how the space industry actually works.”, says Andrew Bacon, industrial advisor to the project from Thales Alenia Space in the UK, “so we conceived this project together with UKSEDS to give UK students a headstart and to help close the skills gap for the burgeoning UK space industry which requires over 20,000 new engineers and scientists by 2030 in order to remain competitive. It has been great to see how the students have stepped up to this challenge and it gives me great hope for the next generation.”
Dr Chris Mutlow, Director of RAL Space, says “We are delighted to support this competition with the use of our space test facility and robotics trials area and recognise the value of comparable and robust testing of space instrumentation”.
The Lunar Rover Competition is organised by UKSEDS, the UK’s student space society and its partner, Thales Alenia Space in the UK and sponsors, STFC’s RAL Space, Oxford Space Systems and Airbus Defence and Space UK. Inspired by past and future missions from NASA and the European Space Agency, the competition challenges undergraduate students to solve engineering problems, using industry-standard techniques, tools and processes. More information on the competition can be found at:
Robert Garner, UKSEDS
UK Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (UKSEDS) is the UK’s national student space society. It supports students and enthusiasts across the country by runningspace projects, hostingconferences and workshops, and doingoutreach to inspire and educate. It aims to promote space development and build links between different parts of the space community.
UKSEDS, formed in 1988, is the UK chapter of SEDS, the world’s largest space enthusiast organisation for both school and university students. SEDS was founded in 1980 by students at MIT and Princeton University and now has more than 60 chapters worldwide.
UKSEDS is a charitable body, registered in England & Wales, with registration number 1158580.
About Thales Alenia Space in the UK
Thales Alenia Space in the UK was established in 2014 with offices in Bristol, Harwell and Belfast and is a leader in propulsion systems, mission subsystems, and next generation payloads for telecoms, satellites and UK satellite constellations. Thales Alenia Space in the UK is also responsible for the Broadband Radiometer – a space borne instrument, as part of the European Space Agency ‘Earthcare’ programme, which will help scientists understand and monitor global warming.
Media contact: Jill Hutchinson +44 (0) 7854 959 805
ABOUT RAL Space
RAL Space is an integral part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council's (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL). RAL Space carries out world-class space research and technology development with involvement in over 210 space missions.
Media contact: Caroline Callard, Head of Communications, STFC RAL Space
Image courtesy of Thales Alenia Space UK: University of Surrey fitting the rover on the vibration table