Students design drill for NASA program

By Andres Torres

A team of Cal Poly Pomona aerospace engineering students recently designed and tested a zero gravity drill for asteroid research as part of NASA’s microgravity program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

The zero gravity Research Tool for Asteroid Chipping and Collecting, or RTACC, is a mechanical chisel that is theoretically capable of collecting samples of asteroids in outer space.

Using three different compartments to store its rock samples, the mechanical drill is spring-assisted and propels chisels when loaded to chip away at potential asteroids to gather specimens. Each compartment of the drill serves to keep the integrity of each sample intact and separate.

With a budget of less than $150 Eric Ngo, Paul Navarro, Christopher Baldonado, Austin Miller, Maciej Rosa and Geraldson Evangelista, all students at CPP, were eager to partake in a skill-building project and form a group determined to create a tool astronauts could one day utilize to collect asteroid samples.

“Since each sample couldn’t be cross-contaminated, we had to have three separate chisels that had to be taken into account,” explained Navarro, a fourth-year aerospace engineering student.

With various complex steps and many working parts, the project, which took approximately five months to complete, started as an extracurricular assignment but turned into a senior project.

“Initially we wanted to do this because it seemed like a fun idea, and it just so happened that it was counted as a senior project,” said Evangelista, a third-year aerospace engineering student.

With the help of Donald Edberg, a professor at the aerospace engineering department, the team took full advantage of an opportunity to create a scientific tool and become part of a program that could potentially allow the group members to boost their understanding of their field. And for Navarro and Baldonado, it was an opportunity to complete their senior project ahead of time.

“We took this project because the secretary of the [aerospace] department emailed the whole department informing us about NASA’s microgravity program,” said Evangelista.

The team members also volunteered in outreach assignments that tasked them to various schools in an effort to educate students about aerospace engineering. While this was a requirement for the qualification process, the team took great pride in its work and was able to host four different events with different high schools, according to Baldonado, a third-year aerospace engineering student.

Once the team met every parameter of the qualification process, it, along with teams from 12 other schools, was accepted into the NASA microgravity program in Texas.

With only five members of the group able to attend, they were accompanied by Edberg and were required to pass teamwork and safety challenges.

After vigorous mandatory communication drills, which allowed the team members to improve their efficiency, they were able to gain the knowledge required to lead a mission involving the RTACC in a simulated experience.

“It helped us realize that we had to break down every single task that we wanted [the divers] to accomplish. It allowed us to become more thorough,” said Navarro.

The team tested the RTACC in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, a 6.2 million gallon pool where the team was able to simulate a zero gravity environment with NASA-certified divers as the team conducted the tasks of mission control.

“The way they were testing it, we weren’t really sure [the RTACC] would be in an ideal situation,” said Navarro.

With the RTACC built for zero gravity conditions, the tool was not able to function properly, as gravity was still present within the lab. While the lab simulates zero gravity, there is still gravity present in the water, according to team members Navarro and Baldonado.

Regardless of the obstacles the team faced, the RTACC successfully chiseled the specimen but was unable to properly collect an uncontaminated sample.

“It was a useful experience because in any job you aren’t going to always get along with everyone, but this allowed us to learn from our differences,” said Baldonado.

On top of the group members’ personal workloads, such as school and work, they were able to put aside their schedules to work together as a team for the experience.

Students design drill

Gloria Vanegas / The Poly Post

Students design drill

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