US Students’ ‘Big Idea’ Could Help NASA Explore the Moon

Last November, Northeastern University student Andre Neto Caetano watched the live, late-night launch of NASA’s Artemis 1 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a cellphone placed on top of a piano in the lobby of the hotel where he was staying in California.

“I had, not a flashback, but a flash-forward of seeing maybe Artemis 4 or something, and COBRA, as part of the payload, and it is on the moon doing what it was meant to do,” Caetano told VOA during a recent Skype interview.

Artemis 1 launched the night before Caetano and his team of scholars presented their Crater Observing Bio-inspired Rolling Articulator (COBRA) rover project at NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game Changing (BIG) Idea Challenge. The team hoped to impress judges assembled in the remote California desert.

“They were skeptical that the mobility solutions that we were proposing would actually work,” he said.

That skepticism, said Caetano, came from the simplicity of their design.

“It’s a robot that moves like a snake, and then the head and the tail connect, and then it rolls,” he said.

NASA’s BIG Idea Challenge prompted teams of college students to compete to develop solutions for the agency’s ambitious goals in the upcoming Artemis missions to the moon, which Caetano explains are “extreme lunar terrain mobility.”

Northeastern’s COBRA is designed to move through the fine dust, or regolith, of the lunar surface to probe the landscape for interesting features, including ice and water, hidden in the shadows of deep craters.

“They never could … deploy a robot or a ground vehicle that can sort of negotiate the environment and get to the bottom of these craters and look for ice water content,” said professor Alireza Ramezani, who advises the COBRA team and has worked with robotic designs that mimic the movements of real organisms, something Caetano said formed a baseline for their research.

“With him building a robot dog and robot bat, we knew we wanted to have some ‘bioinspiration’ in our project,” Caetano said.

Using biology as the driving force behind COBRA’s design was also something Ramezani hoped would win over judges in NASA’s competition.

“Our robot sort of tumbled 80 to 90 feet (24-27 meters) down this hill and that … impressed the judges,” he told VOA. “We did this with minimum energy consumption and within, like, 10 or 15 seconds.”

Caetano said COBRA weighs about 7 kilograms, “so the fact that COBRA is super light brings a benefit to it, as well.”

Ramezani added that COBRA is also cost-effective.

“If you want to have a space-worthy platform, it’s going to be in the order of $100,000 to $200,000. You can have many of these systems tumbling down these craters,” he said.

The Northeastern team’s successful COBRA test put to rest any lingering skepticism, sending them to the top of NASA’s 2022 BIG Idea competition and hopefully — in the not-too-distant future — to the top of NASA’s Space Launch System on its way to the moon.

“I’m not saying this, our judges said this. It’s potentially going to transform the way future space exploration systems look like,” said Ramezani. “They are even talking to some of our partners to see if we can increase technology readiness of the system, make it space worthy, and deploy it to the moon.”

Which is why, despite his impending graduation later this year, Caetano plans to continue developing COBRA alongside his teammates.

“Because we brought it to life together, the idea of just fully abandoning it at graduation probably doesn’t appeal to most of us,” Caetano said. “In some way or another, we still want to be involved in the project, in making sure that … we are still the ones who put it on the moon at some point.”

That could happen as soon as 2025, the year NASA hopes to return astronauts to the lunar surface in the Artemis program.

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