Project LETO shoots for the moon

Students band together to take on NASA’s Big Idea Challenge

On Sept. 18, 2019, a meeting was held to introduce interested engineers to Project Lunar Extraction & Transportation Operation (LETO), a coalition aiming to take on NASA’s Big Idea Challenge. They’ve been tasked with designing a rover to aid with In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) for the upcoming Artemis 1 Mission, with their facet being extracting water from the moon’s poles. ISRU refers to the actual process that separates crystal from lunar regolith in order to form oxygen and hydrogen (i.e. water).

The project consists of three teams, each with their own specialized role. The ISRU branch is responsible for the aforementioned extraction and separation of crystal. The Collection and Transportation branch will be designing the collection and storage systems, along with the rover body itself. The third branch, Electronic, Power, and Communications (EPC), will be devising how to power the different subsystems, how the rover will operate, and how it will communicate with the team once on the moon. 

Project Manager Benjamin Sagar decided to form the project team after coming across the challenge online.  “One day I was on space.com just browsing and I saw an article concerning a new challenge which NASA was proposing. After reading more I realized that the article was describing a challenge which directly related to ideas which I had been thinking about this summer, and I knew I had to pursue it or I would regret it in the future,” said Sagar.

Like most of the other members, Sagar has been interested in “anything to do with space” for a good while. To be specific, he mentioned that “one of the many components of space exploration that has always interested me has been space mining.” Due to that passion and being “the only person who wanted to organize 20 people to complete this project,” Sagar was declared the project manager after assembling the team.

As for the mechanics of NASA’s Big Idea Challenge, the first stage asks the team to “create a technical report describing how [their] device will complete each task in a low cost and robust way.” At this stage, they will also have to submit a video demonstrating their research and plans. “[Teams] will then submit these to NASA in January of 2020, and from there they [NASA] will choose 5-10 teams to receive a large grant.” If they’re chosen, they will then enter the final stage, wherein they’ll “design a proof of concept device and present it to a panel of industry experts in October 2020.”

The project has been underway since the start of the semester, and so far, “We have created some basic ideas for how we will complete each task provided to us by NASA. We have created some CAD models and done lots of research. We aim to begin testing our ideas and recording data after we hear back about the URI grant,” according to Sagar. Once they hear back about a grant to aid in their research, they’ll “begin testing [their] ideas and recording data.”

 Regarding the project’s name, Sagar revealed that the acronym is in reference to the mother of astronauts Artemis and Apollo. In addition to referencing the mission they wish to join, the group “felt this would be a good name as, while Leto was not as important as Artemis or Apollo, neither would have existed without her.” 

Though they’ve reached their max of 20 members, Sagar said that they “are always open to help from anyone willing to pitch in.” On a personal level, he also noted that he’s “most looking forward to designing something that could have applications to real life. Not only will it be an amazing experience, it will be a chance for us as students to create something that will actually matter.”

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