Witnessing a rocket launch is a special occasion. Watching a rocket launch with materials you made go up into the sky is priceless.
That’s how it felt for researchers from NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and students from Virginia Tech and the University of Central Florida as they watched a sounding rocket launch on Tuesday, May 16 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. On board: Mars rover concepts designed by the students.
“Very few students get the opportunity to design something, put it on a NASA rocket and fly it,” said Jamshid Samareh, research engineer at NASA Langley’s Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate (SACD), who assisted the students.
Funded through NASA’s SACD Internal Research and Development (IRAD) program, the project saw more than 30 Virginia Tech students and one Central Florida student conceptualize, design and build 3-D printed test models of deployable Mars rovers.
The Mars rover concept has its roots in recreational vehicles that have elements that can fold, going with the theme that collapsible items make for easier transport to Mars. This concept has pop-out sections like RVs that would deploy once on Mars.
“It’s always fun when practical solutions necessitate creativity – not to mention it always looks cool!” said Central Florida student J.T. Madigan.
The test models were launched on a 56-foot-tall Black Brant IX sounding rocket as part of the SubTec-7 payload mission.
The Mars RV rover concepts were part of the nearly 1,200-pound payload, which flew to an altitude of about 154 miles before descending by parachute and landing in the Atlantic Ocean to be recovered. SubTec-7 provided a flight test for more than 20 technologies to improve sounding rocket and spacecraft capabilities.
A sounding rocket’s overall time in space is brief, typically five to 20 minutes, and at a lower speed than vehicles designed to go into orbit or beyond. The short time and lower speed are more than adequate (in some cases they are ideal) to carry out a successful scientific experiment.
Solving a packaging problem
Samareh has worked on many projects in his time at Langley, and says that getting materials to the Red Plant safely and efficiently is one of the bigger challenges.
“Part of the problem we keep running into is packaging,” he said. “We have to carry a lot of payloads – rovers, habitats and such. We want to package them on top of the launch vehicle.”
That problem-solving drive led to teams of undergraduate and graduate students from Virginia Tech and Central Florida to work on this project on campus with the support of Langley researchers.
The researchers and students designed 18 Mars rover concepts using Computer-Aided Design, or CAD, software. Four of those designs were fabricated, assembled and tested before they were delivered to Wallops for flight on the sounding rocket.
“I have always thought of mass to be the limiting factor in space travel,” said Virginia Tech student Alex Matta, who was also the team’s graduate advisor. “Participation in this project led me to realize that minimizing volume of the cargo is important as well.”
“A rover is one the big pieces that we want to be able to see if it can be packaged in any way,” Samareh said.
The objective of the project is to develop rigid and deployable Mars rover concepts to improve lander packaging efficiency and aerodynamic stability during entry, descent and landing, and aerocapture, which is a flight maneuver that inserts a spacecraft into orbit around a planet or moon by using the destination’s atmosphere like a brake.
Previous concepts for rovers on Mars from decades ago were not the sleek designs of today – they were big, bulky and heavy, something Samareh did not want to recreate.
“They’re not realistic,” he said. “They cannot be efficiently packed.”
Evolution of the deployable Mars rover design started simple and changed to meet certain requirements, such as the height, width and weight needed to fit on a launch vehicle while taking up as little space as possible.
“Real estate on any type of launch is valuable, so I think it’s awesome that such a novel project was given the opportunity to flight test hardware,” Madigan said.
Samareh encouraged the students to come up with all of the crazy ideas they could so they could pick a few and specifically work on them.
“They come up with these ideas that I cannot come up with,” he said. “They have a different mentality. That worked out nicely.”
The Mars RV rover concepts also received recognition outside of NASA, winning first place in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Region I Student Paper Conference for the Undergraduate Team category in April.
When all was said and done, seeing the students’ faces at the launch at Wallops was “the biggest payoff,” Samareh said, adding that there is not only value in the designs, but also in getting students involved with NASA and motivated on a deeper level for space flight.
“There are things we learned from them,” he said, “and there are things they learned from us.”