Aerospace team earns honors with lunar transportation vehicle design

After a year-long effort in designing a reusable payload transportation system for lunar and deep space missions, one Virginia Tech College of Engineering student team took second place at NASA’s Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts — Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) forum in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

As part of the Moon to Mars program, within the decade, NASA plans to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon and hopes to use it as a staging ground for future interplanetary exploration. A key component to the program is the Deep Space Gateway, a crew-tended spaceport in lunar orbit that will serve as a stepping stone in missions to deep space as well as exploration of the lunar surface.

Aerospace

Of the fourteen university teams competing, three individual teams hailed from Virginia Tech, including Project Luna, who placed second overall.

One of the three Virginia Tech teams selected as finalists in the RASC-AL forum, Project Luna was awarded second place overall for their report on a reusable and refuelable cislunar tug to transport payloads between the Gateway and other destinations between the Earth and the moon. The same team was also awarded first place in the Gateway-based Cislunar Tug theme.

“It is a huge achievement to have three teams from Virginia Tech competing this year,” noted Kevin Shinpaugh, collegiate professor in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering and the team’s faculty advisor. “The themes are always thorough and present authentic challenges facing upcoming missions. In the past, Virginia Tech has produced designs that changed the direction that NASA was previously taking, and given them options they hadn’t considered before.”

Fourteen university teams from across the country competed in a three-day-long forum that included an intense design review to a panel of NASA and industry experts under one of the three Gateway-based themes. The forum seeks to engage undergraduate engineering students in NASA missions and inspire and drive innovation through experiential learning, according to the website.

The competition is considered a “win-win” for all parties as the students bring excitement and energy, and provide the agency a fresh perspective in solving existing engineering challenges. In exchange, the students gain practical experience in tackling a relevant and timely aerospace engineering project and play a small role in NASA’s next era of exploration.

The forum’s themes address timely, priority areas for NASA each year. For 2019, university teams focused on improving our ability to explore destinations on and around the moon via the Gateway – the command and service module for missions to the lunar surface and, eventually, exploration farther into the solar system.

Project Luna team student lead Alejandro Sosa explained, “The RASC-AL competition had very rigorous guidelines, and yet we were given an open canvas in the sense that we had the opportunity to establish the requirements of a system of this kind. Other competitions are given a more detailed scope, so there is less room for students to contribute to the early stages of concept development. We spent a good deal of time figuring out what exactly NASA would be looking for, defining our goals and how we were going to achieve those goals.”

“This competition asked a lot of us. Not only was condensing our written proposal into a final report much more challenging than we originally thought, but we also had the unique opportunity to really sell our idea to industry professionals. Presenting our project to a panel of technical experts and convincing them why they should pursue our idea is not something we typically get to experience in the classroom.”

Teams were evaluated on a 15-page technical paper, a 40-minute oral presentation, and a poster presentation supporting their chosen theme and mission objectives. RASC-AL judges included subject matter experts from NASA, SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing Aerospace, SpaceWorks Enterprises, Aerojet, Rocketdyne, Cislunar Space Development Company, and AST & Science.

After a rigorous and competitive review process, NASA named the winners of each theme and recognized the top two teams that rose above the rest.

A banner year for Project Luna

In the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, the undergraduate program leads up to a year-long capstone design experience in the senior year. Aerospace engineering design courses use the group design process to both better simulate the way design is done in the real world and promote the benefits of collaborative learning.

Project Luna was formed as a senior capstone design team, comprising students studying under the space track of the aerospace engineering program. They learned to build on one another’s strengths, formed sub-discipline teams, and worked toward a single goal of optimizing their design.

Their task for both their capstone design project and the RASC-AL forum was to design a reusable payload transportation system, or Tug, capable of transporting commercial and scientific payloads between the Gateway and various cislunar points. Mission requirements included that the Tug provide a minimum of 15 years of service with one mission per year.

“One of the most expensive and complex aspects to any spacecraft is the propulsion system,” continued Sosa. “Our theme explored the creation of  a “taxi-service” or transportation service that can deliver payloads from government or private customers between the Gateway and low lunar orbit, the lunar surface, or other destinations in the Earth-moon system. This service would potentially save customers both time and money spent on development and would make it easier for payloads to be transported to the moon.

“A big part of our project was creating a detailed business plan, and exploring why this service would be useful,” he continued. “Beyond the technical analysis and design aspects, we needed to provide an in-depth economic analysis on how many payloads we could interact with and how much fuel would be saved by providing transportation for the customers.”

Project Luna earned first place in the space category at the aerospace and ocean engineering department’s senior capstone design expo in April. A few weeks later, the team was victorious again when they were awarded the 2019 Werner von Braun Prize in Astronautics. The annual award, given by the department, is bestowed upon the most innovative capstone design team in astronautics.

As one of the top two teams at RASC-AL, Project Luna was invited to attend and present at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Propulsion and Energy Forum and Exposition in Indianapolis, Indiana, in August. Team members are currently preparing a new paper for the forum and are excited by the prospect of having their paper published by the AIAA.

Project Luna team members include Glenn Andrew, Eric Baker, Brandon Caudill, John Frisch, Davis Huffman, Skylar Manteuffel, Joshua Mataosky, Hank Rains, Siwani Regmi, Shilp Ronvelwala, and Alejandro Sosa, all recent graduates of the aerospace and ocean engineering department. The team was advised by Shinpaugh, also director of information technology and computing services for the Biocomplexity Institute.



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