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ODU Students and NASA Work Together to Collect Boulder from Asteroid

By Roy Stanley

A group of Old Dominion University students known as the Big Blue Crew had the opportunity to work recently with NASA to develop a plan to collect a multi-ton boulder from the surface of an orbiting asteroid.

The Micro-g NExT program, held at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas invites college students to submit proposals to address an authentic, current space exploration challenge. There, teams from colleges and universities across the nation worked on designs for a spacewalk tool to be tested in NASA's 6.2 million gallon Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.

"I remember it didn't sink in that we had been chosen until we were driving down to Texas," said Kimberly Wright, a team member and senior studying mechanical engineering. "It was so amazing stepping into their laboratory for the first time and having the chance to work with real engineers in the field. It's an experience that you can't get in the classroom."

The ODU Big Blue Crew was comprised of mechanical engineering students Nathanial Andrews, Zachary Campbell, William Gottwald, Foster Grubbs, Justin Hernandez and Kimberly Wright. The team's faculty advisors were Robert Ash, professor and Eminent Scholar; Sebastian Bawab, chair of the mechanical and aerospace engineering department; and Lars Lindeberg, head of the engineering machine shop.

The program works in conjunction with the space agency's Asteroid Redirect Mission which aims to visit a large near-Earth asteroid, collect a multi-ton boulder from the surface using a robotic arm, and redirect the asteroid into a "Distant Retrograde Orbit," or a stable orbit around the moon.

In the 2020s, astronauts will explore the orbiting asteroid and return to Earth with samples. Their goal is to uncover clues about the formation of the solar system and the beginning of life on Earth.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission is only one part of NASA's asteroid Initiative. In conjunction with the Asteroid Grand Challenge, which aims to accelerate NASA's efforts to locate potentially hazardous asteroids through non-traditional collaborations and partnerships, the initiative aims to not only learn more about the past but also serve as a planetary defense mechanism to deflect dangerous asteroids from an impeding collision.

Micro-g NExT plays a crucial role in this mission as information gained through this program has the possibility of directly influencing how asteroid mining takes place.

Micro-g NExT competition is composed of three design challenges. Participants are to create an anchoring device, a subsurface sampling device, and a surface sampling device. Each of these designs propose unique challenges and each help to serve a crucial part of the overall mission. With asteroid core samples, scientist can learn how the universe began. Accordingly, Old Dominion University's Micro-g NExT team chose to develop a subsurface sampling device.

"Being a part of this research project has given me the opportunity to participate and work with a team on a real-world engineering design problem." Wright said.

Wright said the team was given a challenge from NASA with set parameters. That provided an opportunity for the team to design, construct and troubleshoot a prototype of a Stratigraphy Maintaining Subsurface Sampling Device.

"From this project, I learned how much I truly enjoy teamwork and the rewards of being able to communicate and work through any challenges that may arise during a design project," Wright said.

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