Students from around the world take the Caltech Space Challenge

Thirty-two students participating in last week’s Caltech Space Challenge were given a mission: facilitate deep space travel and get people to Mars. To accomplish this goal, students were broken into two teams and asked to design a moon base to present to a jury of industry experts that included officials from NASA, Microsoft and SpaceX.

“I think they wanted to see what the two teams would come up with and how each would optimize things,” said Danielle DeLatte, an aerospace engineer and PhD student from the University of Tokyo. “It was cool because you can see how we both kind of focused on different areas and made different design choices.”

The challenge divided students into teams of 16 — Team Explorer and Team Voyager — both required to develop a system to refuel in space through the creation of Lunarport, a fictional launch-and-supply base on the moon for deep-space missions.

To design the structure, students had a yearly budget of $1 billion with leftover funds spilling over to the following years, said Ilana Gat, a Caltech PhD candidate in aeronautics and co-chair of this year’s challenge. During the week, students also attended special lectures to guide them in their planning.

Gat and Thibaud Talon, co-chair of the challenge and Caltech PhD candidate in engineering and applied science, created the topic of Lunarport about a year and a half ago.

“The idea was to create a station on the moon by using its resources to create fuel that we would use to propel reusable rockets,” Talon said. “We really wanted to merge both reusable rockets and ISRU [In-Situ Resource Utilization] together into a mission that would be more focused on the commercial aspect of space because that is also one of the big things that is happening right now — more and more companies are being created.”

Fill ’Er Up

Team Explorer, winners of the challenge, opened their presentation by explaining their goal of giving people who remember seeing the first person land on the moon an opportunity to see the first person land on Mars. Its Lunarport would serve as a refueling landing station on the moon, an idea that team members described as a type of gas station in space, but would also refuel customer vehicles directly in orbit.

Team Explorer chose solar panels and concentrated mirrors to power the base because they said solar energy structures are scalable, easier to maintain and replace, and not as expensive as nuclear energy. However, water and a flat terrain would also be needed for their plan.

To meet these requirements, the sites Team Explorer chose were inside the Cabeus crater and on its rim. The team said Cabeus is the only place with verified water, which can be converted into fuel, and that it had 95 percent sunlight and line of sight to Earth. Communication would not be 100 percent but it would be every day. The plan included phasing out operations so they are autonomous as tasks become more general.

For the Lunar Resupply Shuttle (LRS), the team’s requirements were that it had to be big enough to transport reasonable amounts of fuel, must have self-sustaining power systems, and must be modified to be reusable and able to land, for example by having more sensors, landing legs, attitude control thrusters and internal pressuring supply. A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket would be launched into space and a component of it would be repurposed into an LRS.

“The idea was that you would split, and the upper stage would become a lander, lands on the moon and use that as your LRS,” said DeLatte, a member of Team Explorer.

The team’s aim is to have the moon base fully operational by 2028 with missions to Mars by 2031, which would provide a 26-month window to prove the most efficient travel method. Proposed predictions for the future also included having fuel as the next space industry.

“Our assumption is we are trying to synchronize with NASA’s existing plans,” said Andrew Kurzrok, an MBA candidate at the Yale School of Management and another Team Explorer member. “NASA, it appears, would be ready to go [to Mars] somewhere around 2033 or 2035. You can only go [every 26 months] because that’s when the two planets are close enough that you can make the mission make sense.”

Moon Ice

Team Voyager followed with its presentation involving building a satellite depot so the LRS doesn’t have to land on the moon, which would have minimal infrastructure for obtaining water ice and preparing it for transport using the LRS.

“The LRS would pick up fuel from the lunar station, then launch and rendezvous with the satellite depot to transfer fuel for storage in orbit,” said Gary Li, an aerospace engineering graduate student at UCLA.

A space rendezvous is a technique in which two space vehicles get to a very close distance with each other and can be used to dock. In the team’s proposal, a spacecraft would have to fly to the depot to refuel, but the team included a solar powered propulsion vehicle to tow the spacecraft to the satellite so it would not need to use its own fuel to get there.

One of the primary requirements the team listed for its project was identifying water-rich deposits for future mining missions. The team also decided to use water ice, which can be found in permanently shadowed areas on the lunar southern pole, where the team suggested building its Lunarport. However, the students said the region only gets about 20 days of sunlight, which will be needed to power the base. The satellite depot would also be solar powered. Most of the fuel would be made on the depot but Li said just enough would be made on the moon to get the LRS to and from the depot.

One of its goals was having the moon base be sustainable by 2031 so it would not have to rely on the yearly budget.

The second team, Team Voyager, also suggested making Lunarport profitable after the base has been established. In its timeline, missions to Mars would happen in the 2030s.

“We were talking before that maybe we could combine some of the best of both. A lot of things would fit. It’s not going to be perfect, of course, but it would be interesting to have kind of like a super Lunarport,” DeLatte said.

The technology the teams suggested to use for its designs was a mixture of things that already exist and things that would have to be created, but they are not out of reach. Some of the technology the students chose was by Honeybee Robotics, which is an engineering company which makes advanced robotics systems that can be used in space, like ones used in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory rovers sent to Mars.

“Pieces of it are going to be in existence,” DeLatte said. “So you’re going to have some systems that are developed and are at a high enough technology readiness level (TRL). Anything that’s about TRL level 6 we consider OK, this is worth sending to a real mission. There is certainly some development that would need to happen so you can actually integrate different systems that are at this level.”

A video of the presentations with the technicalities of the proposals can be found on the Caltech Space Challenge YouTube website.

Equal Opportunity

Over 800 students from 74 countries applied to the Space Challenge, creating a less than 4 percent acceptance rate, Gat and Talon said in a promotional video. The selected participants came from 13 countries.

The Space Challenge happens every two years with a different mission each time. According to the Caltech website, it was started by two graduate students in 2011 and was hosted by the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) and the Graduate Aerospace Laboratories of Caltech (GALCIT).

“We think cooperation between countries in aerospace is really the future,” Talon said. “We just want to have a mix of people from everywhere because there are smart people everywhere. We want to make sure everybody has a chance to be a part of this international competition.”