TU students design, build and test device to support outer space exploration

TU students design, build and test device to support outer space exploration

group of seven students standing side by side with the middle person holding a mechanical device
Left-right: Rodolfo Coronado, Kayla Curtis, George Legan, Rianne Brown, Julia Behlmann, Taylor Kinnard, Max McElyea

As humanity expands its exploration of outer space, the ability for equipment firmly to grasp a wide and unpredictable range of terrain is critically important. This requirement became vividly apparent in 2014 when Philae, a robotic lander from the European Space Agency, was unable to anchor onto a comet when its drilling mechanism failed, significantly decreasing the amount of data it was able to collect. NASA does not currently have a technology that can consistently anchor to a wide variety of surfaces to prevent future failures like that of Philae.

Taking up this challenge during their final year was a group of mechanical engineering undergraduates led by Rianne Brown (BSME ’22). She was joined by Julia Behlmann (Class of ’23), Rodolfo Coronado (BSME ’22), Kayla Curtis (BSME ’22), Taylor Kinnard (BSME ’22), George Legan (Class of ’23) and Max McElyea (BSME & BS ’22).

For the program’s Senior Design Projects course, Brown and her teammates designed, built and tested a lightweight, compact device that can anchor to a variety of rock textures and ice. This “Basic Rock Anchoring Device” – known as BRAD – is capable of exerting at least 10 pounds of holding strength in a microgravity environment.

BRAD has eight legs that are extended and retracted from a cylindrical main body. Each leg consists of six feet with embedded fishhooks that utilize microspine technology to grip porous rock, smooth rock, and ice without penetrating the rock surface. The main body contains an inner mechanism system run by multiple pulley systems and locking mechanisms.

BRAD received the 2022 Oklahoma Society of Professional Engineers Outstanding Engineering Achievement Award, Student Category. This is a statewide award that includes every public and private university in Oklahoma.

“Our device enables more secure and reliable anchoring of antennae, landers and other apparatuses,” remarked Brown, who today works as a manufacturing engineer at the Kennedy Space Center on the Orion Crew Module Adapter for the upcoming Artemis missions to the moon. BRAD has endless applications and would give future missions and explorers more confidence as they seek to venture farther, reaching distant planets and landing on icy comets, thus making space safer and more accessible.”

Designing for NASA

Motivation to embark on this project arose from the team’s desire to take part in NASA’s Micro-g NExT program. This is a national design challenge that presents college student engineering teams with real project proposals composed by NASA engineers that address current space endeavors. Teams submit their concept pitches in October, and the groups chosen to advance to phase 2 then have the opportunity to test their devices in June at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL) at Johnson Space Center.

On a mission

illustration of a cylindrical rock-anchoring device with eight retractable legs

Stage one of BRAD’s development involved creating a conceptual design that responded to a challenge, proposed by engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to create a reusable lunar surface anchoring device. Brown and her teammates got to work brainstorming in September, using cardboard and popsicle sticks to rough out various prototypes.

The next step was to submit their proposed conceptual design to the Micro-g NExT program in October. This submission included a detailed report and a fully functional CAD model that took over 100 hours to complete. Two months later, the team received the good news that they had been selected to advance to phase 2.

With the start of the spring 2022 semester, Brown et al. began developing their device one sub-component at a time: from feet, to legs, to the internal mechanism, to other subsystems and, finally, the user interface. Each month they submitted various reports and made presentations both to TU and NASA giving progress updates and explanations of their design. Indeed, throughout the duration of the project, the students were paired with a NASA employee as a mentor and were in continuous conversation with her and the Micro-g NExT team.

“I thoroughly enjoyed working with the team throughout the semester,” said Kai Cui, the NASA test engineer who served as the team’s mentor. “I looked forward to meeting with them weekly to see how much progress they were making. The students did a great job working through problems that they encountered during the design process and came up with various creative solutions. It was always amazing to see how efficient and effective the team was. The most exciting moment was seeing BRAD in action at the NBL and observing the team’s hard work come to fruition.”

NASA engineers were so impressed with BRAD that they invited the team to the NBL to test their device in a microgravity environment and to submit their final report. Brown and her teammates were the first University of Tulsa students to advance to that stage.

Dropping anchor

person wearing a diver-astronaut suit submerged in a pool while holding the basic rock anchoring device
Diver holding BRAD with its legs stowed

Four of the students traveled to the NBL in June to test BRAD, where their device proved both safe and smooth to operate. At the end of testing, the diver commented that he never felt in danger of the device’s hooks and was able to easily follow the provided instructions. Testing in the NBL demonstrated the effectiveness of the safety features and user-interface labels and that BRAD functions mostly as intended in a microgravity environment.

Professors John Henshaw and Steven Tipton have co-taught the Senior Design Projects course for over 30 years. “In all that time, I don’t think either of us have ever seen a team work harder or smarter than the BRAD students,” commented Henshaw. “They displayed every positive quality we hope to instill in our students: hard work (exceptionally so!), extreme attention to detail, a never-say-die attitude, superb teamwork and brilliant hands-on and analytical skills.”

Tipton agrees, noting that both the team and their invention were “outstanding.” In fact, he added, “based on what I saw, if this were an actual competition, they would have either won or been among the top two finishers. BRAD was probably the only design that met all of NASA’s criteria, including weight and size.”

For Brown, completing “an end-to-end design process” was the prime benefit of undertaking this senior design project. “You begin with just a list of vague project requirements and some random ideas,” she said. “But you end with delivering a fully manufactured and functional piece of hardware that is completely unique.”

On top of that, Brown observed, “working with such an exceptional team was incredibly rewarding. We drew on the immense support of Drs. Henshaw and Tipton, and each of us brought different strengths, experiences and ideas to the table, and we were able to connect and support each other well.”

five people seated in chairs in a control room with their backs to the camera while facing a set of eight monitors showing scenes of an experiment taking place under water
NASA employee and four team members watching (via multiple camera views) BRAD in the hands of a diver

As a final step, the TU team submitted a report to NASA detailing how BRAD works and the results of all the testing. Scientists at NASA can now draw on the device’s innovative features, such as its internal mechanism that allows for independent leg actuation, as they develop their own designs for future outer space voyages of discovery.

Discover, design, invent! We eagerly await your energy and ideas in the TU Department of Mechanical Engineering.