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Student engineers test-driving lunar rovers

17 July 2017

Robotic lunar rovers, built by student engineers from six UK universities, were put through their paces Sunday in a series of trials at the Harwell campus, Oxfordshire.

Bath SpaceSoc rover (Credit: Bath SpaceSoc)

The event was the first Lunar Rover Competition to be organised by the UK’s national student space society UKSEDS and was hosted by the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s RAL Space facility.

The challenges were based upon a potential future robotic mission to a crater on the lunar south pole. As part of that mission, each lunar rover is required to drive through rough terrain to the bottom of the crater to collect ice samples. The ice is then tested to ensure it is safe for future astronauts to collect. Like the real mission, the student’s rovers will need to be remotely operated via cameras in order to navigate rocks and steep slopes and be designed to survive the rigorous shaking of a simulated rocket launch.

As well as meeting these technical challenges, the students have already successfully presented their designs to a range of space engineering experts at industry standard review panels.

Aqua Lunar (Credit: Bath SpaceSoc)

“Opportunities like this are critical for building the practical skills that allow students to excel in the modern workplace,” says James Telfer, Chair of UKSEDS. “In particular, the focus on the processes used in the space industry and engagement with our industrial partners gives a great insight into the challenges that face a new space engineer. Plus, building robots is fun!”

To reach the final stage of the Lunar Rover Competition the six undergraduate teams from across the UK had to design, construct and test a lunar rover to a set of engineering and science requirements over a period of nine months. The teams, from the Universities of Manchester, Bath, Bristol, Surrey, West of England and Cranfield, also had to pass a comprehensive review panel of space industry engineers from Thales Alenia Space in the UK, the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s RAL Space facility and Oxford Space Systems. Completion of that review unlocked funding to help the six successful teams build their rovers.

“The majority of engineering and science graduates are coming to us without a knowledge of how the space industry actually works,” says Andrew Bacon, Industrial Advisor to the project from Thales Alenia Space in the UK, “so we conceived this project together with UKSEDS to give UK students a headstart and to help close the skills gap for the burgeoning UK space industry which requires over 20,000 new engineers and scientists by 2030 in order to remain competitive. It has been great to see how the students have stepped up to this challenge and it gives me great hope for the next generation of engineers.”

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