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UConn students shoot for the moon with lunar rover design

A student team from UConn are finalists in the 2022 NASA BIG Idea Challenge.
Credit: UConn/Sean Flynn

STORRS, Connecticut — Students at the University of Connecticut in Storrs are hoping their work may someday be on the moon. 

NASA has challenged college students to create a rover that can navigate the rough terrains on the moon, and potentially beyond. UConn students are spending the rest of this semester, summer and into the fall designing and building their prototype for a lunar rover. 

This year, seven finalists were selected and given funding to fully develop and build out their technologies. This is the first team from UConn to ever compete in the BIG Idea Challenge, let alone the first to be funded. NASA is giving the team $150,000 for their project. 

The team started off with 15 members and has grown to 25 within the last two weeks. A chemical engineer and material sciences and engineering major, senior Theresa Nosel is the team leader. She has completed multiple internships with NASA and wanted to find a way to share her NASA experience with other UConn students. 

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“I was encouraged by one of my friends to apply for my first program, and it took a lot of encouragement, because you think of NASA as the most brilliant minds, and I was like, ‘That’s not something I could do,’” Nosel said. “And then I applied for my first thing, and it just snowballed into more and more and more and more programs with them. And I just wanted to open it up to new people.”

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Nosel started building her team by presenting to a few classes and advertising an informational session in the Daily Digest, a campus wide email list of events and ads. Many students started to see the post and were intrigued by the idea of designing and constructing a lunar rover. 

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“It was our second week, and we were just literally diving into the Daily Digest, clicking on every single link,” says first-year student Kalin Kochnev ’25, a computer science and engineering major. “It was sort of lucky for me – like right place, right time – and I’m really happy to have joined. It’s been super awesome.”

 With the complications of a global pandemic they were subjected to virtual meetings and collaborations. 

“It was a bit of a rocky start in the beginning,” says Kochnev, who led the team’s product design efforts. “I think people are really afraid of sharing their own ideas, especially when you don’t know the people you’re working with.”

Their initial design was a soft-body robotics concept composed of balloons and motors that would move almost like a wheel. Once they were able to have their first in person meeting on Halloween they switched almost their whole design. 

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The team believes this concept will give their rover huge advantages in navigating the highly variable terrain of the moon’s south pole.

“[It] involves four appendages that function as quadruped mode, which allows the [rover] to walk, and then in tank mode, where it has tank-like movement, and then finally in a combination mode, which allows for any combination of appendages to conform to a leg or tank,” explains Sabrina Uva, a human development and family sciences major. “What I think makes this design really unique is that it really is simple and also durable.”

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With phase one complete of creating their proposal, phase two begins in July which involves testing and refining their lunar rover. Their proposal details a wide variety of testing terrains for the rover. They are designing and building a mini slope lab in Storrs to see how the rover will navigate extreme slopes of 30 degrees. The team is also working with Caveman Cryotherapy in Farmington to expose the rover to extreme cold, and the Bolton Ice Palace skating rink to test how it operates on ice. They are also using the vacuum chamber at the National Technical System's laboratory in Massachusetts to see how the prototype operates at low pressures. 

“The challenge ahead is to bring this idea to life and put it through its paces in the face of several extreme lunar-simulated scenarios,” says Fiona Leek, an assistant professor-in-residence with the School of Engineering’s Materials Science and Engineering Department and one of the team’s faculty advisors.

They also hope that their efforts will encourage other students to aim for the moon, take risks, and attempt what might seem impossible. Nosel, in particular, hopes their lunar rover adventure might inspire other students to consider how an agency like NASA could be a part of their future.

“We’re the first team to ever enter, but I don’t want us to be the last team,” she says. “I just want to really encourage other people to look into all the opportunities that are out there, and especially with NASA. Because I’ve been doing things with NASA now for four years, and they love students, and they are so incredibly supportive and collaborative with students. It’s an incredible organization to be doing projects for, and even if it’s not this one, there are so many others out there.”

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