UW News

August 15, 2022

UW to host college students for NASA-funded lunar rover challenge

Photo of rover on simulated lunar surface

The University of Washington received a grant to run a NASA Artemis Student Challenge. The final takes place this month.WSGC

Eight teams of college students will arrive on the University of Washington campus Aug. 19 to go to the moon – or at least a simulated version of it.

In 2020, UW received a nearly $500,000 grant to run one of NASA’s Artemis Student Challenges in which participants turn a model lunar lava tube into a habitat suitable for housing humans on the moon or Mars.

Six university-based programs were funded through NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement, which aims to build knowledge and introduce students to critical topics and technologies related to the Artemis program.

NASA’s Artemis 1 mission has a launch window of Aug. 29-Sept. 5 and will be an uncrewed test mission for a program that will eventually send humans to the lunar surface. Meanwhile, at UW, student teams will put their rovers through a lunar challenge course to generate maps, locate resources and seal off tubes as potential living quarters.

“Skylight features have been observed on the moon, which could lead to lava tubes on what are essentially underground tunnels,” said Mary Denmon, deputy director of the Washington NASA Space Grant Consortium, or WSGC. “If we wanted to explore those, the idea is that you would send a rover down before you sent an astronaut. If you sent a rover down there and it looked good, you might use that structure for something else, like a human habitat.”

WSGC, housed in the William E. Boeing Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, is comprised of more than a dozen institutions within Washington state. Consortium affiliates include Central Washington University, Heritage University, Seattle Central College, Washington State University and more.

STEM majors at two- and four-year colleges were invited to participate in the Artemis challenge, with WSGC providing robot kits, other related materials and stipends. Denmon said one of the main goals was to reach schools that don’t normally engage with NASA challenges.

Several tribal colleges — including Northwest Indian College in Bellingham and Salish Kootenai College in Montana — were heavily involved in the first stage, where students worked to establish what was needed to run the challenge.

Along with the UW, teams from Pierce College and Everett Community College will participate in this month’s final. University of Texas at El Paso is sending two teams. Five of the eight teams are from community colleges. Of the participants planning to attend, more than 40% are women and more than 50% are from historically underrepresented groups.

“We just did a lot of specific and targeted outreach to try and work within our networks and expand out from there,” Denmon said. “I emailed faculty at community colleges that had relevant programs in the state to let them know we were running a challenge and it was free to their students.”

The second part of the challenge collided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, so teams mostly collaborated with faculty members at their respective locations. The award was originally for two years, but WSGC was asked to stretch to three years due to COVID.

Phase three was essentially a restart as students worked on their rovers through the 2022 spring and summer quarters. During the summer, they completed weekly workshops with UW graduate assistants. Now, they’ll travel to UW for the day-long finale.

“It’s a challenge, not a competition,” Denmon said. “The main thing is they’re running their rovers in a dark, model lunar lava tube. We have a challenge course that we set up. They must navigate obstacles and complete all their mission objectives.”

Each team will complete the challenge based on their level of expertise. For example, teams with little to no programming experience will use manually controlled robots provided by WSGC. At the other end of the spectrum, teams with programming and engineering or mechanical design experience will use custom-built rovers with autonomous navigation.

“This is the culmination,” Denmon said. “We’re going to do one big, exciting event. They get to run the rovers and see what they learned.”

For more information, contact the Space Grant Consortium at nasa@uw.edu.