Students shoot for stars in NASA challenge

Matt White holding the Bull Horn, a device for harvesting rocks in space

Three groups of USF engineering students could make history with prototype space tools they developed for a national competition headed by NASA.  

Kaitlin Lostroscio is the project leader of The Rock Biters, one of the teams chosen by NASA from over 100 applicants across the country as finalists in the Micro-g NExT Challenge competition. The three groups from USF are among 19 finalists from across the country that will present in Houston later this summer. 

“Our team has done it kind of unconventionally compared to all the other teams in the competition,” Lostroscio said. “We’ve spent a lot longer time in the design process rather than actually working on a prototype.”

Lostroscio said the focus of her team was creating a safe, practical tool for breaking rocks that can be operated manually. Her team’s device resembles a harpoon gun, which uses springs to generate enough force to chip pieces of rock from asteroids. Although the designs are sophisticated, the actual materials involved can be found in an average hardware store. 

“It’s a combination of plastic, metal where need be, a metal frame…and it’s holding down pretty sturdy. Right now we just have a PVC handle,” Lostroscio said.

The extra time in the design process left Lostroscio and her team with multiple options to consider for the final prototype. She said that the work behind her team’s project wasn’t over and now that they have been accepted by NASA to present, the real process has begun.

“When we get feedback today we’ll have a good idea of where we want to go but we got to start making this thing next week,” Lostroscio said. “We have the safety report due in three weeks and the idea is to have the final product then — so you know everything that is going on with it…to explain how it works.”

As Lostroscio and her team made their demostrations in the Campus Recreation Center pool last week, just across the pool Tyler Isaacs and his group were getting ready. Their project involved the creation of something they call the Hammer Head. In a nutshell, the Hammer Head uses compressed air to shoot out a bolt of material at high speeds.

“Some of the first initial constraints we had were budgeting…being able to build a prototype with the budget we had,” Isaacs said.

Isaacs said he and his team designed multiple 3-D models in order to keep budget reasonable and to improve on earlier concepts. Their current design relies on the interaction between compressed air and zero gravity to produce enough force to shatter rock.

“In the future we want to fix our seal,” Isaacs said. “When we seal on the rock surface, we want to create more of a vacuum type seal so less air can leave when we run the jet.” 

The third team, Bulls in Space, constructed a tool for harvesting samples on the surface of an asteroid without the risk of contamination. Through a air-powered beak that extends from a nozzle at the end of the device, the Bull Horn will be able to collect samples from most types of extraterrestrial surroundings. 

“So there are little rocks on the surface called float samples,” said project leader Brittany Mott. “Our device is meant to collect those to then be taken back to some sort of lab, whether that be on a spaceship or back home on Earth and be tested to determine what type of life-forms — if any — are on that asteroid.”

Like the other two groups involved, Mott’s team had no budget and relied on the kindness and support of others within the college. 

Sebastian Dewhurst is an aerospace engineer, member of the USF Mechanical Engineering Advisory Board and sits on the board of directors for USF Research Foundation. His role in the competition was one of mentor and consultant to the student groups. 

“Getting (to Houston) has been you know, actually as big a problem I think for these guys as actually budgeting for building their devices.”

Though NASA is sponsoring the challenge, the USF teams are collaborating to obtain funds for travel to Houston and to finalize their devices. In August, the teams will be evaluated by scientists and astronauts during a mock spacewalk. Finalists selected could have their devices manufactured by NASA for future space missions.