Carnegie Mellon students

Like thousands of college kids, a team of students from Carnegie Mellon University took off last weekend to the sun and sand for spring break. But for these robotics and engineering majors, there is no ocean, and the only sand they’ll see is in California’s Mojave Desert.

Right now, the team of seven is at NASA’s Mojave Air and Space Port to flight test the sensor package they’ve developed over the last year that will analyze large pits in the surface of the moon and Mars.

The team will conduct the three flight tests – in which the sensor package will be aboard a vertical-take-off, vertical-landing “Xombie” rocket – over the next few weeks when wind and other weather conditions are appropriate. Two of the flights will be tethered and one will be free flight.

“The sensor is designed to be attached to a moon lander,” says Neal Bhasin, team leader and senior computer science major. “We mounted it under a helicopter and flew it over Zelienople (PA) to test it. We are now working on integrating it with a reusable rocket to test it during a rocket flight over a pit analog in the desert.”

It will eventually be used for the Carnegie Mellon and Astrobotic Technology robotic lunar mission – currently scheduled for late 2016.

The sensor, which has three cameras and a laser scanner, will be connected to a lunar lander that will fly over the pit on the Lacus Mortis region of the moon. When it lands it will create a 3-D map of the pit to share it with CMU’s Andy robot, Bhasin explains.

William “Red” Whittaker, professor of robotics and supervisor of the student team says that the importance of the sensors to the Astrobotic/CMU mission “is huge” because it will provide scientists with information about the pits – and ultimately the moon and its history – that cannot be acquired from orbit.

The flight tests are funded through the Undergraduate Student Instrument Program (USIP) of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and the Flight Opportunities Program of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. NASA also supported the team’s work with a $50,000 grant.

The students also received support from CMU Small Undergraduate Research Grants and KVH Industries.

“I’m immensely proud of the team and of its technical accomplishments,” Whittaker says in a statement. “It’s an amazing achievement from such a young group. Apollo included a lot of 20-somethings. Youth generates a lot of innovation and energy.”

Laurie Bailey is a freelance writer who has reported for many local publications. When she isn't writing she serves as a media consultant for nonprofits and other local companies.