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NASA CHALLENGE: OSU students create sample collection tool for NASA as part of asteroid challenge

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OKLAHOMA CITY – The challenge facing Oklahoma State University engineering student Aavron Estep and his team was to design and manufacture a sample collection and containment device which can mechanically obtain and secure a geology sample in microgravity.

The challenge is a little more sophisticated than it sounds. This device the students worked to create would potentially be used to collect samples off of asteroids in space.

NASA is currently working on systems to take humans beyond earth’s orbit to explore the solar system. One of the destinations of interest is an asteroid, one of the solar system’s most primitive bodies that scientists are eager to study.

Estep and his team of students needed to create a way to collect samples from loosely-adhered surface rocks called float samples, and NASA needed a way to collect float samples without cross contamination between worksites.

Earlier this summer, OSU gave them exactly what they asked for.

“In the Asteroid Re-Direct Mission, NASA is sending out a vessel to collect an asteroid from Jupiter’s asteroid belt, and then want it to orbit around the moon,” said Estep. “Once there, they send astronauts to the asteroid to collect samples from it. This is actually the second year we’ve done it. We did the same tool. Because of our experience with it last year, we thought we could improve on our design to a significant enough degree to make it unique.”

Estep and OSU team members Cole Stratman, Rachel Wamsley, Chesney Overton, Steven Asplin and Cole Whittington created a Float Sample Grabber, a geological sampling tool, to collect samples on Mars or an asteroid to eliminate cross contamination.

This year, their design was the best.

Micro-g NExT

NASA’s Micro-g Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams (Micro-g NExT) program challenges undergraduate students to design build and test a tool or device that addresses an authentic, current space exploration problem. The overall experience includes hands-on engineering design, test operations and educational/public outreach.

The students then do test operations in the simulated microgravity environment of the NASA Johnson Space Center Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL).

Teams propose design and prototyping of a tool or stimulant identified by NASA engineers as necessary in space exploration missions. Professional NBL divers test the tools while students direct the divers from the Test Conductor Room of the NBL facility.

“We’ve done similar student competitions for some time,” said Dr. Jamey Jacobs, John Hendrix chair and professor of Aerospace Engineering, director of Unmanned Systems Research Institute at the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at OSU.

“In the past, we did the Reduced Gravity Education Outreach, which was a project in which students worked on NASA’s ‘vomit comet’ while running experiments in zero gravity. NASA shut that program down about two years ago and replaced it with this new challenge.”

OSU’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering program has focused on deep space habitation in the past, but the Micro-g Next challenge focused on NASA’s interest in landing on an asteroid and collecting samples.

“It’s basically space geology, for lack of a better word,” Jacobs said. “They needed a way to collect samples without contamination so we can get a better idea of how the universe was formed.”

The OSU team created a device that allowed astronauts to collect samples in reduced gravity and store those samples in a way that blocked contamination.

“When they collected samples on the moon, they basically used kind of a pooper-scooper type of a tool and there was lots of cross-contamination,” said Estep. “So our tool collects the sample, individually isolates the sample within each container vessel and then stores it without any cross-contamination.”

A handle on the tool collects a collection pod, a one-use pod that can be detached. The pods are spring-loaded to seal, thus preventing contaminations.

The OSU team presented the design to a board of engineers and astronauts at NASA to review. The team met all five major requirements with their design.

“It’s not a competition where you win prizes, but basically our device performed better than the others,” said Jacobs. “It’s really a chance for students to look at technology and innovation.”

What happens to the tool is now up to NASA.

“They can take our design concepts and apply it to their own design or use it in its entirety or they can scrap it,” Estep said. “What we get is experience, and it’s a heck of a resume item. Probably, for the most part, the joy of knowing we contributed is what we get out of it.”

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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