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Caltech Student-Led Lunar Architecture Team Named Finalist in NASA Competition for Second Consecutive Year

Published on Saturday, April 9, 2022 | 5:43 am
View of Giordano Bruno crater on the far side of the Moon

Caused by collisions from asteroids, comets, and other astronomical objects, lunar craters give our moon its characteristic pockmarked façade. But the permanent shade and materials deposited by these celestial impacts offer more than just galactic style. These craters hold the materials necessary for building sustained human settlements on the moon.

Accessing the materials inside lunar craters is no easy task, as the craters feature steep slopes, built-up electrostatic charge, and a fluffy snow-like texture—all of which interfere with sensors and wheels. To overcome this challenge, NASA seeks new ways of getting around the moon that do not rely on wheels. The agency’s Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge asks university teams to go beyond wheeled rovers and create new solutions to the problem of traversing lunar craters.

A team of more than 30 Caltech undergraduates in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science is among seven 2022 BIG Idea finalists. The team’s concept, known as LATTICE (Lunar Architecture for Tree Traversal in-service-of Cable Exploration), is a self-deploying, modular robotic system able to transport materials and hardware in and out of lunar craters. It builds on the experience gained from Caltech’s 2021 BIG Idea finalist project, HOMES, which tackled the problem of lunar dust.

LATTICE involves an infrastructure of cables and stakes which can transport materials across the moon, “similar to what is used in the logging industry,” says second-year Caltech undergraduate student Lucas Pabarcius. “We are trying to set up a permanent system of cables that any sort of tools or robot can leverage,” adds fourth-year Caltech undergraduate student Luis Pabon. “Putting a ski lift on the moon, essentially.”

However, the implications of the LATTICE concept extend far beyond the lunar surface. Indeed, the team’s work on this project can also help to lay the groundwork for travel and transport on the rough terrain of Mars and other objects in our solar system.

LATTICE comprises three separate interconnected systems: the stakes and anchoring systems to be driven into the moon’s regolith (its surface of broken-down rocks); a system for driving the stakes into the regolith; and the shuttles that will traverse the stakes via cables and transport cargo.

“The regolith on the moon is not well understood, so we are trying to develop our prototype to see how much force the stakes can hold and how to make changes in the anchoring system to hold up on the moon,” explains third-year Caltech undergraduate student Calle Junker.

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