Student teams are an underappreciated resource in much of the scientific community. Joining a team working toward a goal while at university, whether to race solar powered cars or dig aquariums in Africa, is an excellent way to hone technical and project skills while improving communication and teamwork. The space industry is beginning to recognize these strengths, with student teams developing exciting projects around the world. A recent entry comes from students at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands – a six-legged robot named Lunar Zebro with a unique toy on wheels.
Zebro, short for ‘zes-benige robot’, or six-legged robot in Dutch, was initially developed as a concept for students to work on in 2013. The group was originally intended for terrestrial applications, with over 120 students in the years The past five, I’ve also decided to develop the Lunar Zebro, with the express intention of being the first European rover on the moon.
To navigate such rugged terrain, the rover uses a unique navigation system originally designed as the RHex project at the University of Pennsylvania. These wheels allow the vehicle, no larger than the size of an A4 sheet, to pass much larger obstacles than wheeled vehicles in its size class.
Even with such a small size, the rover can still pack a decent amount of sensors on its platform, including two specially designed cameras and a radiation sensor. Its original mission is to continue operating on the Moon and to keep communicating again with ground stations at TU Delft for ½ lunar day (or 14 Earth days) while it can get energy from sunlight.
Ensuring that the small rover can meet the lunar challenge is a difficult task. The team has already tested on site in some of the most hostile environments on Earth, including lava tubes in Iceland and on the slopes of the Alps. But space presents more challenges, including constant radiation and extreme temperature fluctuations, that the team believes the rover can overcome in its current configuration.
In this configuration, the rover can be attached to a lunar lander for any country, although the group of students does not appear to have chosen a specific lander to be mounted on its back. Nor have they chosen a timeline for when the launch will take place. But that didn’t really stop them from planning the next stage.
This stage will involve the use of one of the advantages of the Lunar Zebro’s small size – it is relatively inexpensive to manufacture. Meaning anyone can make more of them – and then swarm them. The TU Delft team isn’t the only robotics team with this idea, but the Lunar Zebro project seems to be a good platform. Linking several small robotic systems together can provide more insight than any single mobile vehicle can do on its own.
But in order to get to this part of the mission, the team first has to do the first lunar mission under its belt. There, emphasis is placed on the merits of the student-run team. They will have an endless number of students willing to work on the project, and the project itself cements TU Delft’s reputation as a university where students can work on advanced projects like these. However, these students also take turns away after a certain period of time. Some have gone on to create their own space-related companies, but more importantly, it allows the university itself to provide its students with valuable experience to participate in and even lead tech projects. One day, they could even say they worked on a lunar module – that’s pretty cool in itself.
ESA / TU Delft – lunar zebru
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Moon Zebro is undergoing testing.
Credit – TU Delft
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