Virginia Tech’s design of a reliable and cost effective system to send a minimum of two astronauts to a Near Earth Asteroid and return them safely to earth has won the team first place in the 2010 American Institute of Aerospace and Aeronautics (AIAA) Team Space Transportation Design Competition.

The Virginia Tech engineering students called themselves Team COLBERT, an acronym for Close Object Landing by Earth Research Team. They named the mission Athena after the Greek goddess of wisdom, due to the amount of insight into the history of the universe that would be gained from the asteroid samples brought back by the astronauts.

“Our students did an outstanding job in the competition,” said Christopher Hall, professor and head of the aerospace and ocean engineering department at Virginia Tech. “And Kevin Shinpaugh, one of the designers of our System X supercomputer, was a great source of information for our students as they looked at redundancy and aerospace design methods.”

The six members of the team, all aerospace engineering majors, were: Josh Eggleston, of Chester, Va.; Kristopher Walbert, of Birdsboro, Pa.; Eric Buckenmeyer, of Lake Ridge, Va.; Umair Surani, of Sugar Land, Texas; Andrew Lyford, of Leesburg, Va., team leader; and Katie Rybacki, of Ashville, N.C. The faculty adviser, Kevin Shinpaugh, of Catawba, Va., is the director of research and cluster computing at Virginia Tech and an adjunct faculty member with the aerospace and ocean engineering department. 

The focus of the effort was to design a Human Asteroid Exploration System (HAES), with a technology that was feasible for a timeline between 2018 and 2030. The HAES had to provide all of the crew accommodations and life support systems for safe travel. The system also had to devise how the astronauts would explore the asteroid’s surface, how they would be able to use scientific equipment, and how they would transport at least 100 kilograms of asteroid samples back to Earth.

The students explored various risk mitigation strategies. They focused on multiple thermal and radiation systems to shield the astronauts from the harsh conditions of space, decided on health monitoring systems that could also take preemptive steps in the case of a problem, and proposed a water landing back on Earth to insure no undue stress was placed on the astronauts’ bodies after such a long mission in zero gravity.

They also identified redundancy as key to the safety of the mission. Instead of one living environment, they proposed a separate lander and capsule that could serve as a lifeboat in the event of system failure. They also designed each subsystem with multiple computer systems, eliminating a total system failure in the event of one computer malfunctioning.

The engineering students devised a theoretical spike and ice system for the legs of the lander when it was on the asteroid. The spikes would provide the main grip to the asteroid surface and the ice would allow for an added attachment. The astronauts would be attached to the arms of the lander to make sure they did not escape the asteroid’s gravity, and the students also designed for multiple arms in case one failed.

They selected the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) engine that requires the fuel to be launched with the spacecraft, but its low fuel consumption reduces the amount of fuel needed. VASIMR actually reduces the amount of fuel needed from 90 percent of the spacecraft dry mass to about 40 percent, they wrote in their award winning paper.

The students selected hydrogen as the fuel of choice, citing its safety aspects from previous testing in space applications. They added that is was readily available and less expensive due to its high usage rate.

Other parameters they focused on included a launch vehicle selection, additional scientific instrumentation, spacecraft configuration, power systems, thermal and environmental systems, radiation protection, and more. In all, their submitted technical paper was 89 pages.

AIAA will honor the team at the AIAA Space 2010 Conference & Exposition Aug. 30 –Sept. 2, 2010 at Anaheim, Calif.